Here’s The Best Way To Find New Startup Ideas

A lot of people in the Bay Area think of creativity as a singular thing––a product of entrepreneurs and engineers brainstorming in a room with a whiteboard. But that’s just not how it works. Or, at least, that’s not how it should work.

In fact, that kind of process only produces ideas that people inside the Bay Area bubble are interested in. To truly innovate and think of novel startup ideas, you need to get outside of that.

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My co-founder and I are thinking about this now: what we want to do next, and how to go about deciding that.

How to find new startup ideas

What we’ve found is that inspiration doesn’t strike in an ideological silo. Rather, it requires a lot more work and even more strategy. And, often, it requires studying and visiting other countries and cultures.

Here’s why.

Look outside the United States

My background is in gaming, and one thing that became clear to me early on was this: from game mechanics all the way to entire product ideas, what’s popular in many of the games we play in the West originated in the East.

Simply put, a lot of the innovations we’re seeing today were actually first popularized––or at least conjured––in other countries.

Here are some examples across industries:

New startup ideas in gaming

  • “Free-to-Play In mobile (and now console) gaming, “Free-to-Play”––where users download games for free and companies monetize through in-app purchases––was huge in Asia before making its way to the U.S. Giving away games for free was actually controversial in the U.S. at first.
Free to play games: new startup ideas

Free to play games. Photo source: Digital Trends

  • “Loot Boxes.” Many of the mechanics around “loot boxes” (also called Gacha Systems) came from Japan. They learned that a system of Variable Rewards was the most powerful way to create an addicting compulsion loop. You also saw this system of variable rewards with Pokemon card packs––you never knew what you were going to get and that made it exciting.

New startup ideas in ride-sharing

Innovation in bike sharing

Bike borrowing was popular in China and European countries long before it was popular in U.S. cities. That’s partly because bikes have been a more major method of transportation elsewhere than here.

The concept behind Chariot

If you’ve taken Chariot in San Francisco or New York City, you’re familiar with the concept of hopping on a bus with a predetermined route. My co-founder, Dennis, tells me that this method of rideshare has been popular in Eastern Europe and Russia for decades.

New startup ideas in food production and food delivery

The concept of “Cloud Kitchens”––through which restaurants are opting out of physical retail locations in favor of delivery-only models––are gaining prominence here in the states. Travis Kalanick, for example, recently bought With the rise of on-demand options like Postmates, DoorDash, and Deliveroo, which can facilitate delivery, this strategy promises to save business owners a ton of money because they can focus solely on food production.

Cloud Kitchens

Photo source: Cloud Kitchens – the next big opportunity? (Go Frugal Technologies)

But none of this originated here. It’s been popular in India, for example, since 2011, where companies like Faasos operate all three stages of a “food-on-demand” business: ordering, distribution. and order fulfillment.

New startup ideas in live streaming and live video

Live streaming feels like a recent phenomenon here in the U.S., what with Instagram Live, Facebook Live, and Twitch. But this, too, has been huge elsewhere for a long time. In China, for example, people have been live streaming themselves doing everything from eating to playing games for years. Its relevance was proven years ago. Companies in the east are even rolling out streaming innovations.

These innovations allow people to purchase or order clothes, games, and toys they’re seeing on a stream. Look at what ShopShops is doing, connecting retail stores in the U.S. with Chinese consumers via live streaming bloggers.

New startup ideas in microfinance

Muhammad Yunus started and popularized peer-to-peer microlending in India by way of the Grameen Bank in 1983.

The West, by and large, initially doubted whether lenders would be paid back. They were proven wrong, and microlending has since become huge in the U.S., giving birth to companies like Lending Club and Kiva.

Kiva: innovation and new startup ideas

Photo source: Kiva Hits 1 Million Lender Milestone! (

New startup ideas in digital currencies

Years before digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum made quick, inexpensive money transfers possible at scale, such a transfer system already existed in Kenya: M-PESA. M-PESA is, in fact, one of the primary means of payment in Kenya.

Takeaway #1: There are very few truly original ideas.

Here’s another problem that plagues Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: they believe that innovation is synonymous with originality.

That’s also not true.

What innovation really boils down to is creating value. It’s not a matter of breaking ground. What’s important is improving lives.  

If you, like me, are thinking about what you want to build next, before you start studying new cultures, internalize the fact that you don’t need to create something that’s never been done before in order to create value. It’s not at all shameful to adopt something that’s been proven to work elsewhere. In fact, that’s a very smart place to start.

Takeaway #2: If you insulate your ideation processes in the bubble of the Bay Area, you miss out on innovations.

By studying and, better yet, spending time in other countries, you’ll see where many of our most influential “innovations” came from. In turn, you’ll give yourself a chance to identify the next life-changing innovation before everyone else.

It follows, then, that if you don’t do this, you’ll hamstring yourself. Not only will you miss out on potentially game-changing developments, but you’ll also miss out on critical pieces of data. The attempts in other countries to popularize new technologies or business models amount to case studies which themselves produce an immensely valuable kind of data––data that shows you in a real-world setting which aspects of the model work and should, therefore, be adopted, and which don’t.

Alex Paley is a Head of Studio at Glu Mobile, where he runs a studio of about 30 people and concentrates on real-time multiplayer games. Previously, he was the co-founder of Dairy Free Games, which was acquired by Glu in August 2017, and the co-founder of TrackingSocial, a social media analytics company that he and his partner spun into art investing. He’s still involved with investing and has invested in startups that have been acquired.

  • Originally published February 25, 2019, updated April 26, 2023