A Systematic Way for Navigating the Startup Idea Maze and Achieve Product Market-fit in Half the Time

Alright, So Here’s the Deal…

You know the hardest thing about starting a company? It's picking the right idea to put your heart and soul into.

The problem is most folks are pretty lousy at finding that golden idea. Why? Because they're wandering around the “idea maze” like a headless chicken.

ChatGPT explains the idea maze

That’s the traditional path a founder takes from day one to finding a product-market fit. But let's face it, it's flawed.

Here's why:

  • You're focused on hype cycle trends rather than the real problems.
  • When you encounter a roadblock, it's unclear what to do next: pivot or persevere.
  • It's easy to get overly invested in any one specific solution
  • You could find yourself going around in circles, repeating the same paths.
  • Worst of all, you might miss the sweet spot, AKA product-market fit. You could throw in the towel too early, missing out on some killer opportunities around the corner.

An Idea So Crazy It Just Might Work: “The Idea Tree”

So let’s introduce a breath of fresh air: the “idea tree.”

The “idea tree” is a structured method that founders can use to systematically find business opportunities. Imagine the top of the tree representing a high-level problem, like "College is bleeding me dry," or "My gas guzzler is wrecking the planet." Each branch is a sub-problem, with only the leaves standing for specific solutions. The branches of the tree? It's all problems, baby.

Why is this a game-changer?

  • You can track different routes within a problem space like a boss.
  • It provides clear visibility of your progress.
  • It maintains morale as you know your options at all times.
  • Deciding whether to pivot or persevere becomes a walk in the park.

Planting the Seed: Building the Idea Tree

Here's how you make your own idea tree. Start with a big problem that’s as broad as the horizon, like, "Travel gives me a headache." Second layer? Add a few subproblems, like "Travel costs an arm and a leg," or "Planning trips is as fun as a root canal."

Next, dig into one of those subproblems for your third layer. For example, if "Travel is too expensive," you could add these sub-branches:

  • "Hotels cost more than my car."
  • "Rental cars are daylight robbery."
  • "Flights are like burning money."

Repeat this process for a few tree layers, adding, removing, and updating branches as you chat with potential customers.

The "leaves" of the tree are your potential solutions. For the example above, one leaf could be "Vacation rentals (the Airbnb route)" for the “hotels are too expensive” problem, and another could be "car sharing (the Turo way)" for the "rental cars are too expensive" issue.

And guess what? Both these paths lead to the land of billionaires.

Example Peek into Uber’s Idea Tree

Okay, now let's break down Uber's idea tree for some real-world insights:

High-Level Problem: Urban transportation is inefficient and expensive.

Second-Tier Problems:

  • Taxis are often inaccessible
  • Car ownership in urban areas is costly and inconvenient.

Third-Tier Problems:

  • Taxis are often inaccessible:
    - Difficult to hail
    - High prices

Fourth-Tier Problems:

  • Difficult to hail:
    - No clear way to see ETA
    - Need to compete with others during peak hours or bad weather
    - Need to make a phone call
  • High prices:
    - Expensive due to lack of competition
    - Low visibility into the pricing before hailing

Potential Solutions (Leaves):

  • No clear way to see ETA:
    - Real-time tracking
    - Need to compete with others during peak hours or bad weather
    - Reservation system
  • Need to make a phone call:
    - SMS-based hailing
    - App-based hailing
  • Low visibility into the pricing before hailing:
    - Flat pricing
    - Pre-determined pricing

Notice that you don’t have to pursue only one node in the solution layer. In Uber’s case, their solution didn’t consist of just one of the leaves in their idea tree… they mixed and matched to get to the jackpot: real-time tracking, app-based hailing, pre-determined pricing, etc.

Finding product-market fit means solving the north-star problem for a subset of the population. The list of problems you choose to tackle becomes the requirements for your MVP.

The goal of the idea tree isn’t to 3D print the exact solution that your customers will need but give you a starting point that you can use to systematically explore solutions that correspond to the same parent branch.

This is just one example, but you could quickly draw up an idea tree for any major business.

Swinging from Branch to Branch: Navigating the Idea Tree

It's a classic dilemma. When do you cut your losses and jump ship, or dive deeper into a promising branch?

In the early days, favor exploration (traveling wide through your idea tree) over exploitation (going deep down your idea tree). But once you start getting that warm, fuzzy feeling of confidence, it's time to drill down into a branch.

Here are some signals that you should keep on digging deeper down the current branch:

  • When folks in your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) are keen to buy or pre-order your product, ask about pricing, or want a meeting with their team (especially if it’s a big shot).
  • Users are falling over themselves to introduce you to people or follow up without being nudged.

Signs that you should pack your bags and hit a new branch:

  • Your potential customer conversations are as exciting as watching paint dry.
  • You're getting radio silence despite multiple follow-ups.
  • Compliments but a whole lot of stalling (check out "The Mom Test" to learn more about this).

Pruning branches

Unlike the idea maze where each dead-end feels like a sucker punch to the gut, the idea tree is specifically designed to keep morale high.

As soon as you realize that an entire branch no longer seems promising, you can simply prune the entire branch and move on to the next branch in your tree.

If there isn't a sister branch, you can jump up to the parent branch and move on to its sister branch.

An example of how to move through an idea tree

Take this example.

Say your North-star problem is "career upskilling is broken for working professionals."

Your first move could be to go down the left side of the tree and explore the problem labeled "Career upskilling is inaccessible to most working professionals."

You continue down the tree to the first subproblem: "There aren't enough high-quality online courses for upskilling."

After doing some research, you learn that this assumption is false. There are enough online courses (and, boy, are there a lot).

The next step would be to explore the next subproblem: "Working professionals don't have the time to do professional development." After many conversations with your users, you learn that is also untrue.

They have the time but different priorities. Since we've invalidated all the assumptions for this level of the tree, we can now go up to our parent branch, prune it, and move on to its sibling: "Upskilling courses" are unaffordable.

This is a simple example but you can imagine extending this to a much larger problem space.

Why this works

With this approach, there isn't the immediate panic that comes with knowing that an assumption was wrong. In fact, you want to find that out as soon as possible so you can narrow down to the best opportunities.

Plus, you won't need to get as emotionally invested in any one solution because you know that there are dozens of other paths just around the corner.

The optionality is liberating.

Wrapping It Up

Startups are a tough game, with nearly 90% biting the dust.

You’ve only got so much runway (financial and emotional). If you get stuck in the idea maze, you’re dead. Clear and simple.

So instead, don’t enter the maze. The "idea maze" is past its sell-by date. It suggests you should wander aimlessly in the wilderness, hoping to stumble on a pot of gold.

But the idea tree? Now, that’s a system that helps you explore opportunities in a structured way. It weeds out false hopes, makes the pivot or persevere decision clear as day, and helps you glide smoothly through the problem space, separating the gold from the coal.

You can't force a product into existence. The market wants what it wants. To hit the bullseye, we need to get scientific about building businesses. And the idea tree is just the tool for that.

If you want to give the idea tree a shot, feel free to use this template to build your own. If you found this post helpful, share it on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Big shout-out to everyone who helped read and review early drafts of this post

Wesley Tian, Brandon Chen, Tim Su, Grant Rheingold, Michael McCarty, and more.

The Idea Tree: Finding Problems Worth Solving

The idea tree is a new concept that allows startup founders to ditch the idea maze and rely on a more systematic approach to finding great business ideas.