From time to time I hear aspiring entrepreneurs saying that they want to start a business, if only they had an idea.
I also see a lot of startups that aren’t solving a real problem. Example: SocialBrowse (now dead).
You are going to have a hell of a time selling your product if it doesn’t solve a real problem. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s damn hard.
I’ve compiled a list of actual tough problems that need to be solved. All of them have, I think, the potential to be billion-dollar companies. These aren’t niche products.
- A modern spreadsheet. Excel and Powerpoint are no longer adequate. A modern spreadsheet should do everything that Excel does, be tightly integrated with its presentation tool (Powerpoint successor), but it should be better and more advanced. It should allow easy web integration; this means everything from web data collection (similar to Wufoo) to web data display / presentation display. It should be as easy to use as Excel for beginning users, but it should have the capabilities of a real database that a power user can take advantage of. Also, it should have a real scripting language built in (e.g., Python or Ruby). VBA, you do not count. It should run on Windows, Mac, AND Linux.
- Fully compatible electronic medical records. Believe it or not, the primary way that doctors share medical information is by fax. In 2013. According to Jeff Tangney of Epocrates, "fax machines are the lingua franca of healthcare." 15 billion pages of faxes are sent in the U.S. every year. (Source) To be fair, there are quite a few players in the EMR space. But no one has solved the communication and interoperability problem.
- Cost-Effective Solar Panels. If anyone figures out how to make roof-top solar panels that will breakeven within 3-5 years, then solar panels will become the de facto standard and adoption will skyrocket.
- eBay for Real Estate. Quite a few companies have made an attempt here, including Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin. But no one has solved it yet.
- Online learning with real certifications. There are a lot of great online learning resources, but there isn't really a way to get a diploma online. There should be some way that an aspiring (but cash-strapped) student can study his way through the equivalent of 4-year computer science degree and get a real degree for a few hundred dollars. Udacity took a big step in this direction by announcing its partnership with San Jose State University and results in real college credit. I don't think this is a winner-take-all market. I think there's room for several big players to make plenty of money. (And the model is very scalable.)