When I talk with other people of my generation about starting a business, the most common response that I get is along the lines of “I’d love to start a business… but, I have no idea what to do.”

This answer always surprises me because, for the most part, people in their 40s, 50s and 60s have more experience, skills and financial resources than any other age group. With decades in the workforce shouldn’t we see opportunities in every direction?

As I dig a little deeper, I usually find that there is a core assumption that holds people back from finding profitable business ideas – they believe that they need to find new business ideas that no-one has ever thought of before.

Given the way that business success stories are portrayed on TV, I’m not surprised that so many of us feel this way. After all, Silicon Valley is all about “disruption” of existing (old and boring) industries and companies like Uber, eBay, PayPal and Facebook are held up as the quintessential examples of start-up success.

In reality, the great majority of successful businesses will never be the next billion-dollar company – and that’s OK! Most of us, especially those of us in our 40s, 50s or better aren’t looking to take over the world… we just want to take control of our world.

If we abandon the idea that we need to build something big to be successful, we find that the process of coming up with a business idea is not as hard as it sounds.

The first X questions will help you to identify your strengths. Then, I’ll introduce some questions that will help you to find the intersection point between your passions and other people’s pains.

First, let’s talk about how to identify your passions.

3 Questions to Help You Identify Your Skills and Passions

What business skills have you acquired to date?

One of the things that is different about starting a business at 50 – as opposed to 20 – is that you already three decades of experience to draw on.

Unlike college students, who often find themselves having to develop radical ideas to make up for their lack of experience, older entrepreneurs can identify opportunities for incremental improvement.

Start with tangible skills, like engineering, graphic design or copywriting. Then, move on to less tangle skills and personality traits such as an ability to solve complex problems or creative thinking and brainstorming skills.

What are you passionate about?

Another way of asking this question is “What activities do you take part in that leave you feeling energized?”

A quick word of warning: try not to list things just because they sound good. For some reason that I cannot explain, people always tend to list at least one sport in their list of passions. Many of these same people see their chosen physical activity as a “necessary evil.”

Don’t fall into this trap. Write down the activities that you are genuinely passionate about, without thinking about what others would think. Do you read into the early hours of the morning? Do you create websites for fun? Are you passionate about politics? Do you get a charge from helping people? It’s time to get writing!

What do your friends ask you to help them with?

This may sound like a strange question, but, in many cases, it can trigger new business ideas. For example, I have a friend who can fix anything mechanical. From toasters to PCs, all he needs is a little time and he can have your broken item fixed in no time. Another friend of mind is always being asked to give feedback on other peoples’ websites. My friends always come to me for advice about starting a business. What do your friends ask you to help with?

Now, let’s talk about how to identify new business ideas.

3 Questions to Help You Generate New Business Ideas

If you have followed my blog for a while you will know that I am not a big fan of the “do what you love” school of thought when it comes to starting a business. Far too often, I find that this approach either results in crappy businesses or, worse, it kills peoples’ passions.

Good new business ideas are built at the place where your passions and other people’s pains meet. In other words, what can you do to help other people? Here are a few questions to help you start converting your passions into profit.

What do people who share your passions struggle with?

Before starting any new business, I would recommend spending several months researching your potential target market. Get involved in discussion forums. Go to meetups. Attend conferences. Do whatever it takes to gather information about what people want and need.

Start to create a list of all of the complaints that you hear. For example, let’s say that you currently work as a veterinary assistant. You are thinking of starting your own pet-related business, but, you don’t know where to start.

Of course, the first thing to do would be to start paying attention to the conversations that you have with your patients. Do they complain about having to clean the cat’s toilette? Are their animals having behavior problems? Are their dogs too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter? Any one of these questions could lead to a profitable business – some services based and some requiring product development.

What problems have you always wished someone would solve?

You need to be careful when asking this question. There is a fundamental bias that each of us has to assume that everyone around us thinks the same way that we do. As a result, if you only think about your own frustrations, you might assume that the demand for a particular product or service is higher than it really is.

So, once you have a list your own frustrations and problems written down, be sure to verify them with your potential target audience. Ask other people on forums and in person if they are facing the same challenge.

Another word of warning: many people are happy to write down the problems that they think someone should solve. Fewer are willing to research whether someone has actually solve them! Maybe they don’t want to know that they face competition. Or, maybe brainstorming is simply more fun than research. Whatever the reason, don’t fall into this trap!

Remember that competition is not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it is an indication that a market exists for your potential product or service. The goal is to find a place that you can incrementally add value. So, research your competitors and ask yourself what you could do better.

Where do your passions meet other peoples’ pains?

Businesses make money by reducing other peoples’ pains. It’s that simple. Along the way, they capture some of the value that they create by making other peoples’ lives better.

In some ways, the most fun part of brainstorming new business ideas is coming up with ideas for improving other peoples’ lives, using your own skills and passions.

Let’s go back to our veterinary assistant.

Maybe she studied engineering at university before dedicating her life to looking after our furry friends. Could she invent a better cat toillete? Maybe.

Perhaps she has been studying dog training for years and feels that large dog owners could benefit from a series of educational videos helping them to take control.

Maybe she volunteers at a youth center and sees an opportunity to start a pet walking business in which she would connect teenagers looking for work with busy pet owners looking for help.

The opportunities are endless and, as this example shows, your skills don’t have to be limited to things that you can do yourself. If you are good at coordinating others, this can form the basis for a profitable business.

I hope that you find these questions useful as you begin the process of brainstorming your own new business ideas. Do you have any other techniques for developing business ideas? Please let us know in the comments below.

Would you like to start a business? What techniques have you used to start to generate new business ideas? What advice would you give to the members of our community who are thinking about starting a new business for the first time? Please join the conversation.