Coming up with unique online business ideas can be a challenge. Maybe you feel you’ve already had all your best ideas. Or perhaps you know you’ve got what it takes to be a great entrepreneur, but can’t quite decide where to direct your energy.
This is an extremely common concern among founders—the search for the next great idea.
To get your creative juices flowing, here are five tried and true approaches that will help you come up with a unique online business idea. (And, because you’ll be full of ideas by the end of this, there’s even a bonus article at the end to help you take your idea to step two.)
By highlighting success stories and asking thought-provoking questions, we’ll jumpstart your creativity and help you come up with a unique offering for your marketplace. Let’s get started!
Create Updated or Unique Branding/Messaging
Humans have been wearing shoes for about 40,000 years. So, it’s not exactly a eureka moment to think, “I’ll make and sell shoes!” Pretty typical stuff.
But it is a new idea to turn the buying of shoes into an act of philanthropy. With that simple twist on a 40,000-year-old product, TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie reinvented the concept of buying shoes.
Blake’s idea came during a visit to Argentina. While there, he helped a woman hand out shoes to children. He learned about podoconiosis, or “Mossy Foot,” a disease that is caused by walking barefoot in silica-rich soil. Blake returned to the States, sold his online driver education company for $500,000, and started TOMS. From day one, Blake’s business plan included a commitment to giving away one pair of shoes to Argentinian youth (or youth in other developing nations) for every pair sold.
When the Los Angeles Times carried a story in 2006 about the company’s uniquely benevolent approach, orders poured in for nine times more pairs than Blake had in stock. The company has continued to grow ever since, expanding into eyewear, coffee, and bags. With each expansion, a new commitment is made that passes the product and/or profit on toward those less fortunate.
When Bain bought 50% of TOMS in 2014, the company was valued at $625 million. It’s given away over 2 million pairs of shoes so far.
All that unfolded because Blake turned the purchase of a 40,000-year-old product into a benevolent act.
What time-tested product can you apply new branding or messaging to and land upon a unique online business idea?
One way to think about this is to consider what products or services you buy that bore you to tears (hello, laundry). How can you change that boring paradigm? How can you make a consumer want to do laundry?
Or get the oil changed in the car? Or eat peas? Or take vitamins? Humans have been engaging in these activities for decades, usually without joy. How can you insert joy into the branding and capture that consumer’s loyalty and engagement? Your answer starts by figuring out what would bring you joy in that experience.
Another way to approach the idea of applying new messaging to time-tested products is to think about products or services whose brand messaging is similar throughout the industry.
Take towels, for instance. We all buy bath towels for one reason: to dry off after bathing. So existing towel messaging addresses that motivator by telling us how plush and soft their towels are.
But what if you inserted a different motivator for buying a towel? If you take a page from Blake’s philanthropy playbook, then perhaps for every towel you sell you also donate one to a homeless shelter. Or perhaps an environmental motivator would work: market the towel that will never have to be replaced, or that’s made sustainably (from bamboo, maybe), and therefore leaves little to no footprint.
When you start considering all the everyday products and services you use—and how similar their branding and messaging are—you’ll begin to see a lot of opportunity for unique online business ideas just by bringing fresh messaging to time-tested products.
Take a Fresh Marketing Approach
Like shoes, soap has been around for a minute. The Babylonians invented it in 2800 B.C. and women have been bringing home their chosen scents ever since. The idea of inventing a new kind of soap and marketing it to women has been done…to death.
But what if the marketing approach shifted to men?
Well, then it becomes an $8.3 million per year business called Dr. Squatch. With sentences like, “You are not a dish, you are a man,” and online video ads featuring men in the woods using its product, Jack Haldrup’s company successfully convinces men to purchase all-natural soap that smells good and cares for their skin.
How can you apply a fresh marketing approach to a new product and shift its sales into current white space? Like Jack Haldrup, consider whether you can market an existing product to an entirely new audience.
As before, start by taking a look at the products or services you use every day. Why do you use them? Chances are, it’s because they’re marketed to people like you. But who else would enjoy using that product or service? How could you shift the product into a place of interest for a new audience?
Think candy for adults, soft sheets for kiddos, mom bags for aunts and nannies, lawnmowers for women, luxurious hair care for men, oil changing kits for teen girls. Yes, there are stereotypes involved here. Flip the stereotype on its head and you might just find a unique online business idea.
Rethink the Purchasing Process
Maybe you can’t think of a new way to market or brand an old product in order to create a unique online business idea. Okay, how about reviewing the way the product is purchased?
For instance, what if you don’t make it available all the time?
Sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it? If you want to sell more widgets, make the widget more available. But The 5th would beg to differ. This pioneering watch company makes its products available on the fifth of each month, for five days only. The first day it launched, The 5th did $100,000 in sales. One year later, it did $1 million. How did a company that sells something we’ve been wearing since 1868 experience a tenfold revenue increase in one year?
It re-thought the process of consumer interaction.
By introducing the concepts of scarcity, exclusivity, and creative wordplay into their sales approach, The 5th capitalized on the human brain’s natural hard-wiring that values what can’t be immediately obtained. They added in the idea of a coming reward, which primatologist Robert Sapolsky says creates an even greater dopamine dose in human brains than actually getting the reward.
How can you change the typical buying experience for your customers, putting their natural inclinations to work for your business’s benefit?
Consider what you want the consumer to do. Purchase your product? Share your social media posts? Follow you? Engage in a certain behavior like eating differently, running every day, journaling, etc?
Now do your research. The human brain has different motivators to cause certain outcomes. For instance, if you want someone to share your social media post, incite strong emotions like joy or disgust. Research has revealed all sorts of secrets about why we do what we do. Decide what you want from the consumer and research what causes a human to exhibit that behavior or belief. Then, just like The 5th, incorporate your findings into your business idea.
Revisit the Return Experience
No matter how excellent your product is, and regardless of the amazing marketing and branding you apply to it, there will be returns. Rather than avoiding this dreaded reality, what if you embraced it as a way to woo customers?
What if you accepted that a good return policy can actually increase both sales and revenue?
Zappos did. They’ve found that the customers who return the most shoes are also the ones who buy the most from them. To be clear, the customers with the highest returns spend more and are the most profitable for the company.
Dr. Squatch is another example of instituting a return policy that serves sales. Theirs is called the “Sudsifaction Guarantee” and provides a full refund to customers within 30 days of their order.
What if your return policy became a selling point for your company? How could the policy make the company’s products more appealing? Think beyond the “free returns” idea that’s already been done so well. What’s the next step, the additional experience, you can insert into the return that ultimately results in a truly unique online business idea?
Improve or Combine Existing Features of a Product
You are likely reading this article on a smartphone, which in itself is not a new product. It’s a combination of products that already existed (phone, camera, computer). And we bought 1.56 billion of those handy little devices in 2018.
But let’s get even more basic. Think about the humble wheel.
Now place that wheel on a suitcase, as Bernard Sadow did in 1970. Now fine tune it to roll along smoothly, without tipping over, as Northwest Airlines pilot Bob Plath did in the late 1980s to start Travelpro. Today, his company processes nearly $27 million in revenue yearly.
It’s such a simple concept, isn’t it? Add wheels to a suitcase and suddenly it’s more user friendly.
Look around the environment you’re in right now. What items could be combined to create a good customer experience? To bring more ease, enjoyment, or ability to life? Or think about a product you use regularly, but it doesn’t quite get the job done.
What do you wish you had that would make your own life experience more rewarding, accessible, functional, or enjoyable? Chances are high you aren’t the only one who would want such a product.
But Is It a Good Idea? (Bonus Article Alert)
Once you have a unique online business idea, how do you know if it’s any good? Just because it seems no one else has thought of it doesn’t mean no one else has thought of it. Or that anyone really wants it, for that matter.
Not seeing your idea elsewhere can indicate that the first person who tried it found out it’s a bad idea and scrapped it. (This includes homeless tours, breakfast cola, drive-thru strip clubs, laxative potato chips, and odor-emitting computers.)
As always, though, Foundr’s here for you.
Check out this article about online business ideas for next steps on fleshing out your thoughts, testing theories, and getting yourself further down the road toward becoming a profitable online business owner.
Have questions on what you’ve just read? What’s the wildest business idea you’ve considered? Let us know in the comments below. (We really do read every one.)