Look for the paper

Sometimes it is hard to think up start ideas. The best ones are often hidden schleps. But that’s the issue. They are hidden. Here’s a trick to find some of them anyway: Look for the paper.

Wherever in the world you find yourself printing or using paper, there is a startup idea. Not necessarily an amazing, billion dollar idea, but a schlep that annoys everyone and a business can be built around removing it.

Paper gets wet, you need access to a printer, ink is expensive, paper doesn’t update once it’s printed, paper literally leaves a paper trail. There are tons of reasons paper sucks.

Most of the pre-internet days was turning paper into a phone call. If you could do that, you had a solid business.

Early internet was turning both paper and phone calls into some software you can download. This covered more ground.

In the pre-smart phone days, solid businesses turned paper, calls, and downloads into websites. Some of the websites were hard to use, okay lots of them still are. I am a huge fan of Repl.it, they let people code without a download.

Right now we are still in the API-fication of start-ups. Turn paper, phone calls, downloads, and confusing websites into an API + a simple GUI for the API. Not everyone can code after all, but those who can should be able to automate the service. I built shotput.com and zipx.com to handle an API for logistics.

If we break that down, we get:

Paper -> Calls -> Downloads -> Confusing site-> API + Simple GUI for the API

This should be followed in that order of priority. The benefits of turning a confusing site into an API could be 10x, but turning a phone call into an API could be 1000x. Every time you encounter a paper or a phone call just think what you can build to automate this. There are so many APIs that need to be put online still.

Still stuck for ideas?

Have you ever tried finding the bus schedule in South Korea? What about searching all court trials related to youtube in New York? How about looking at every bill discussed in congress from the last week? Or searching every senators vote history on the last 100 bills?

The benefits of fixing a schlep like are a killer mix. You offer the same service but are far more convenient, you can collect money faster, and you can be cheaper because you automated an expense away. Your product will get better faster because changes are propagated to your API instantly instead of training a team of callers or making sure all your customers update their downloaded software.

It is important to see which ideas have been implemented well. Most major credit cards have instant approval (at least in the USA), same with insurance and loans.

So whenever you have to use paper, a phone call, a download, or a confusing site this year, maybe write it down.

Side note: If you want to target older folks, keeping a phone call in the loop might still be a good idea too.