Many people believe starting a business is a mysterious process. They know they want to start a business, but they don't know the first steps to take. In this chapter, you're going to find out how to get an idea for a business--how you figure out exactly what it is you want to do and then how to take action on it.

But before we get started, let's clear up one point: People always wonder if this is a good time to start their business idea. The fact is, there's really never a bad time to launch a business. It's obvious why it's smart to launch in strong economic times. People have money and are looking for ways to spend it. But launching in tough or uncertain economic times can be just as smart. If you do your homework, presumably there's a need for the business you're starting. Because many people are reluctant to launch in tough times, your new business has a better chance of getting noticed. And, depending on your idea, in a down economy there is often equipment (or even entire businesses!) for sale at bargain prices.

Estimates vary, but generally more than 600,000 businesses are started each year in the United States. Yet for every American who actually starts a business, there are likely millions more who begin each year saying "OK, this is the year I am going to start a business," and then don't.

Everyone has his or her own roadblock, something that prevents them from taking that crucial first step. Most people are afraid to start; they may fear the unknown or failure, or even success. Others find starting something overwhelming in the mistaken belief they have to start from scratch. They think they have to come up with something that no one has ever done before--a new invention, a unique service. In other words, they think they have to reinvent the wheel.

But unless you're a technological genius--another Bill Gates or Steve Jobs--trying to reinvent the wheel is a big waste of time. For most people starting a business, the issue should not be coming up with something so unique that no one has ever heard of it but instead answering the questions: "How can I improve on this?" or "Can I do this better or differently from the other guy doing it over there?" Or simply, "Is there market share not being served that makes room for another business in this category?"

Get the Juices Flowing

How do you start the idea process? First, take out a sheet of paper and across the top write "Things About Me." List five to seven things about yourself--things you like to do or that you're really good at, personal things (we'll get to your work life in a minute). Your list might include: "I'm really good with people, I love kids, I love to read, I love computers, I love numbers, I'm good at coming up with marketing concepts, I'm a problem solver." Just write down whatever comes to your mind; it doesn't need to make sense. Once you have your list, number the items down one side of the paper.

On the other side of the paper, list things that you don't think you're good at or you don't like to do. Maybe you're really good at marketing concepts, but you don't like to meet people or you're really not that fond of kids or you don't like to do public speaking or you don't want to travel. Don't overthink it; just write down your thoughts. When you're finished, ask yourself: "If there were three to five products or services that would make my personal life better, what would they be?" This is your personal life as a man, woman, father, husband, mother, wife, parent, grandparent--whatever your situation may be. Determine what products or services would make your life easier or happier, make you more productive or efficient, or simply give you more time.

Next, ask yourself the same question about your business life. Examine what you like and dislike about your work life as well as what traits people like and dislike about you. Finally, ask yourself why you're seeking to start a business in the first place. Then, when you're done, look for a pattern to emerge (i.e., whether there's a need for a business doing one of the things you like or are good at).

They Delivered

Here's a business startup story that's a great example of seeing a need and filling it. Entrepreneur magazine is located in Irvine, California, a planned community. Many years ago, there weren't many fast-food restaurants in the business area. Most were across town, where the neighborhoods were. Two young men in Irvine found this lunch situation very frustrating. There weren't many affordable choices. Sure, there were some food courts located in strip centers, but the parking lots were really small and the wait was horrendous.

One day, as they were lamenting their lunch problem, one of them said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get some good food delivered?" The proverbial light bulb went on! Then they did what many people don't do--they did something about their idea. Coincidentally, they purchased one of Entrepreneur's business startup guides and started a restaurant delivery business.

To date, their business has served more than 15 million people! It's neither a complicated business nor an original one. Their competition has gotten stiffer, and yet they're doing phenomenally well. And it all began because they listened to their own frustrations and decided to do something about them. Little did they know that research cites the shrinking lunch hour as one of the biggest complaints by American workers. Some only get 30 minutes, making it nearly impossible to get out, get lunch and get back on time. So while these young entrepreneurs initially thought they were responding to a personal need in their local area, they actually struck a universal chord.

That is one way to get ideas--listening to your own (or your co-workers', family's or neighbors') frustrations. The opportunities are all there; you just need to search them out. If your brain is always set in idea mode, then many ideas may come from just looking around or reading. For instance, if you had read an article about the shrinking lunch hour, and if you were thinking entrepreneurially, you would say "Wow, maybe there's an opportunity there for me to do something. I should start researching it."

Inspiring Moments

Inspiration can be anywhere. Here's another classic startup story: Ever get charged a fee for returning a video late? Bet you didn't do anything about it. Well, when Reed Hastings got a whopping $40 late charge, instead of getting mad, he got inspired. Hastings wondered "How come movie rentals don't work like a health club, where, whether you use it a lot or a little, you get charged the same?" From this thought, Netflix.com, an online DVD rental service, was born. From its start in 1999, Netflix has grown into a big business with revenues topping $1.3 billion.

Getting an idea can be as simple as keeping your eyes peeled for the latest hot businesses; they crop up all the time. Many local entrepreneurs made tons of money bringing the Starbucks coffeehouse concept to their hometowns and then expanding from there. Take Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee. The founders had what they describe as an "aha moment" in 1990, and two years later launched what is now the nation's second-largest company-owned gourmet coffeehouse chain. Other coffee entrepreneurs have chosen to stay local.

And don't overlook the tried and true. Hot businesses often go through cycles. Take gardening. For the last few years gardening products and supplies have been all the rage, but you wouldn't consider gardening a 21st century business.

In other words, you can take any idea and customize it to the times and your community. Add your own creativity to any concept. In fact, customizing a concept isn't a choice; it's a necessity if you want your business to be successful. You can't just take an idea, plop it down and say "OK, this is it." Outside of a McDonald's, Subway or other major franchise concept, there are very few businesses that work with a one-size-fits-all approach.

One of the best ways to determine whether your idea will succeed in your community is to talk to people you know. If it's a business idea, talk to co-workers and colleagues. Run personal ideas by your family or neighbors. Don't be afraid of people stealing your idea. It's just not likely. Just discuss the general concept; you don't need to spill all the details.

Just Do It!

Hopefully by now, the process of determining what business is right for you has at least been somewhat demystified. Understand that business startup isn't rocket science. No, it isn't easy to begin a business, but it's not as complicated or as scary as many people think, either. It's a step-by-step, common-sense procedure. So take it a step at a time. First step: Figure out what you want to do. Once you have the idea, talk to people to find out what they think. Ask "Would you buy and/or use this, and how much would you pay?"

Understand that many people around you won't encourage you (some will even discourage you) to pursue your entrepreneurial journey. Some will tell you they have your best interests at heart; they just want you to see the reality of the situation. Some will envy your courage; others will resent you for having the guts to actually do something. You can't allow these naysayers to dissuade you, to stop your journey before it even begins.

In fact, once you get an idea for a business, what's the most important trait you need as an entrepreneur? Perseverance. When you set out to launch your business, you'll be told "no" more times than you've ever been told before. You can't take it personally; you've got to get beyond the "no" and move on to the next person--because eventually, you're going to get to a "yes."

One of the most common warnings you'll hear is about the risk. Everyone will tell you it's risky to start your own business. Sure, starting a business is risky, but what in life isn't? Plus, there's a difference between foolish risks and calculated ones. If you carefully consider what you're doing, get help when you need it, and never stop asking questions, you can mitigate your risk.

You can't allow the specter of risk to stop you from going forward. Ask yourself "What am I really risking?" And assess the risk. What are you giving up? What will you lose if things don't work out? Don't risk what you can't afford. Don't risk your home, your family or your health. Ask yourself "If this doesn't work, will I be worse off than I am now?" If all you have to lose is some time, energy and money, then the risk is likely worth it.

Determining what you want to do is only the first step. You've still got a lot of homework to do, a lot of research in front of you. Buying this book is a smart first step. Most important: Do something. Don't sit back year after year and say "This is the year I'm going to start my business." Make this the year you really do it!

This article is an edited excerpt from "Start Your Own Business, Fifth Edition", published by Entrepreneur Press.