How to know if an idea is worth pursuing

2 years ago, I was in a pretty odd situation. It was like a mini mid-life crisis, except I was only 23. I basically had no idea what I was going to do next after leaving banking. All I was certain of was two things: firstly, that I wanted to go into business and secondly that I needed a flexible lifestyle to accommodate for a chronic back injury. The issue was that I had no idea what business to start.

I talked to one of my friends about the situation and she said I should apply to do the Masters in Technology Entrepreneurship at UCL. So, I decided to look into it. It was a 1-year programme aimed at forming a startup, with guidance from a group of experienced entrepreneurs-turned-lecturers. It seemed a pretty perfect option for me. The hours wouldn’t be too intensive, giving me enough time to continue with rehab for my back, and also, I felt that it would be the perfect environment to come up with an idea.

The course started in September 2016. Luckily, my cousin Darrell had some time off after graduating from university, and we decided to team up to come up with an idea together. In my mind, I gave myself a deadline of up to Christmas that year to decide on an idea, leaving the remaining 9 months of the course for validation.

Given the tight schedule, we had to find a way to decide on which of our various ideas to pursue. We eventually realised that the best way to choose was to ask ourselves three questions in the following order:

Question 1 — Am I passionate enough about this?

If you’re a young entrepreneur, the likelihood is that building a startup will be by far the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. There are so many uncertainties and things that can go wrong. Every day there’ll be a new, difficult challenge, so you need to make sure you’ll be motivated enough to overcome anything that’s put in front of you. Also, you’ll likely be working on your startup for years before you actually achieve any success. So it’s wise to ask yourself ‘could I work on this every day for the next 10 years, inclusive of weekends?’. Being passionate about something is a great driver to get yourself out of bed in the morning even when you know it’s going to be a difficult day ahead.

Question 2 — Have I got a comparative advantage?

Anyone who studied with me will tell you how much of an economics geek I am, and one of the most interesting things I learned during my studies was the theory of comparative advantage. It basically means people shouldn’t specialise in things they are good at, but rather things they are good at relative to everyone else. This is really important in startups because often what leads companies to success is their ‘secret sauce’ — something that they know that others don’t. Also, having what it takes to be an expert relative to everyone else in your field is a great way to protect yourself against competition.

Question 3 — Will the market be big enough?

It’s really easy to fall into a trap here. Often what people will ask themselves is ‘is the market big enough’, instead of ‘will the market be big enough’. Creating a startup is a bet on the future — you basically have to have a view on how the world is going to change in a few years’ time and start building for that future now. Founders have different motivations for creating companies, but in most cases, there needs to be enough demand for what they are creating for it to be worth the effort. Also, in cases where building the product is costly, either enough revenue or enough investment will need to be received, and without a lot of demand, that will be near enough impossible.

This is often the hardest question to answer. But, you’ve got to try and find the answer as quickly and cheaply as possible (see my co-founder Darrell’s blog post on the research process).

Why did co-founding Flair make sense?

The passion question was easy for me. I’ve played football for most of my life and I’m a huge believer in the power of sport for bringing positive changes to communities.

Often, I’ve been asked why I ended up in sports-tech instead of fin-tech, given my background in investment banking. For me, it’s a simple answer. Comparative advantage. Yes, my 2 years on the trading floor gave me some insight into the world of finance, but I wouldn’t say my knowledge was anything special relative to all the other hundreds of thousands of graduates who go into banking.

However, there were so many experiences that I had gone through that I felt would give me a unique advantage in starting a social network for youth footballers. Firstly and most importantly, I had specialised in multi-sided platforms at Warwick University and felt I had a solid understanding of the mechanics of communities and network effects. Secondly, in most fields, startups are founded by people currently working in an industry who have noticed a problem that they are trying to fix. Flair targets kids and teens (who presumably can’t yet build a startup), so I knew that we’d naturally have less people trying to compete against us. Also, I played team football till age 19 and was fortunate to be raised in the UK — the world’s biggest market for football and a great country to launch Flair. Lastly, I was 23 when I started Flair — young enough to be able to relate to our target demographic, having grown up in the digital age, but also old enough to actually execute the business.

Youth football is an ever-growing market. Taking the UK as an example, in 2016 the FA announced its 4-year Strategic Plan. One of the plan’s core pillars is to double girls’ football participation by 2020. On the other side of the world in China, plans are even more ambitious with a huge push being made to become a football superpower — China plans to have 30 million elementary and secondary school kids playing football by 2020. To put that in context, 11 million people play football in the UK across all ages. In terms of actual spending, kids’ sports in the US is a $15.3 billion industry that has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, with no signs of that trend reversing. Currently in the US, the average family spends $1,472 per year, per football player.

I always tell people that if they can’t come up with solid answers for all 3 of the above questions after some serious thought, it’s probably a good sign that they should move on to the next idea. That applies to if the idea is your own, or someone else’s that you want to collaborate with them on.

But how do you even come up with an idea in the first place? — that’s what I’ll be talking about in my next blog post.