Do you know how to spot a million dollar business idea?
Some of the most successful businesses are the ones you’d never expect to succeed. But peel back the curtain and you’ll find even the most unique business ideas follow a proven formula for success. See how even regular people can find million dollar ideas that worked.
When you’re trying to find the right idea for your business, sometimes all you need is a little inspiration. Let’s see what we can learn from two unique business ideas worth millions — and one worth billions.
Million-dollar business idea #1: Cards Against Humanity
Cards Against Humanity is anti-establishment in every way — including its business model.
Known as “a party game for horrible people,” it was created by a group of high school friends who liked to make up their own games for fun. Once they realized other people were interested in this particular game, they put it online for free under the Creative Commons license.
Money didn’t even come into play until two years later, when they launched a Kickstarter campaign to print a physical pack. With a goal of only $4,000, Cards Against Humanity ended up raising $15,000. And in just two years, the game generated $12 million in revenue, even though it remains available for free as a PDF download to this day.
“We have not really opted in to the traditional publishing system for games or anything else,” co-creator Max Temkin told The Blueprint. “We’re doing this really weird model where we own all of our IP, and we make everything ourselves, and we sell it direct to the customer.”
This intimate setup has allowed the creators to remain 100% in control of the branding. That means they can choose how to scale their business and pull crazy stunts like selling boxes of cow poop on Black Friday.
The takeaway: Start with something you’re passionate and knowledgeable about
If you’re not sure where to start when brainstorming your ideas, begin with what you do for fun, what you love to research, or what you usually help other people with. That might be coming up with games to play, giving tips on how to stay in shape, or polishing people’s resumés.
GrowthLab CEO Ramit Sethi suggests asking yourself these four questions to find a profitable business idea:
- What do your friends complain about that you find effortless?
- What do your friends say you’re great at?
- What do your friends say when they introduce you?
- What would you do if you had 3 hours free every week?
Notice how much these questions are about your friends, your hobbies, and your passions. Those were exactly the ingredients that gave life to Cards Against Humanity.
This business proves that no idea is too strange, as long as you can find demand for it. When the co-creators first came up with the concept, they never imagined they’d turn it into a multimillion-dollar company and a household name. But once they saw people flocking to their fresh and fun new game, they knew there was room to grow and ultimately profit.
Million-dollar business idea #2: Spanx
At 27 years old, Sara Blakely was annoyed with the old-fashioned pantyhose she wore every day to work. They were uncomfortable on her feet, but she liked the control-top. So, one day, she cut off the bottom of the pantyhose and wore them underneath her pants for a slimming effect. That’s when she realized she’d created a garment that hadn’t existed yet. And there might be more women who wanted it in their wardrobe.
Two years later, Blakely launched Spanx. She did it with $5,000 in savings, a self-made patent for $150, and no formal knowledge about fashion, design, or retail. But through her own research and networking, she was able to land a deal with Neiman Marcus, get featured on Oprah, and host regular segments on QVC.
Spanx is now a billion-dollar business, and in 2012, at 41 years old, Blakely became the youngest woman to join the Forbes World’s Billionaires list.
The takeaway: Put a new spin on an old solution
When Blakely set out to manufacture her prototype, she realized that the entire undergarments industry actually needed to be refreshed. It was largely run by men, and new products were tested on mannequins instead of real people.
As she told Inc., “It dawned on me that maybe that’s why our pantyhose had been so uncomfortable for so long because the people making them aren’t wearing them.”
She saw an immediate need for a female perspective, and she was going to be the one to provide it.
Remember this when looking for business ideas. Ask yourself:
- Is there an established industry or product that is outdated?
- Can I think of an innovative way to offer a new solution?
- What makes me uniquely qualified to provide this solution?
If you can’t answer these questions right away, start by researching an industry or field you’re passionate about (or even annoyed by!). Like Blakely, you might find an opening where your voice is needed.
Million-dollar business idea #3: Museum Hack
After falling in love with The Met in New York City, Nick Gray started offering free tours to his friends, showing them his favorite pieces and telling cool stories about the museum and artworks. Gray’s tours eventually spread by word-of-mouth, and he started hosting weekend events and even birthday parties at the museum.
Finally, Gray wrote a blog post about his tours, and he immediately saw the demand flood in — thousands of people emailing him and wanting to join his events. That’s when he launched Museum Hack, the antidote to boring and stuffy museum tours. You know, the ones you associate with school field trips and monotone voices.
Museum Hack is now a $1.2 million business, running ongoing public tours at five museums in four major cities. They even host private scavenger hunts, corporate team building events, bachelorette parties, and consultations with museums that want to engage new audiences.
The takeaway: Aim for the golden goose
Museum Hack fits right in the sweet spot of the demand matrix. That is, the “Golden Goose” section, with many customers and high-priced services.
GrowthLab’s Demand Matrix
Think about it: Gray could’ve written a coffee table book about his museum tours and anecdotes. But that might’ve landed in the “Labor of Love” section, with few customers.
Instead, he went right for the Golden Goose, launching a variety of in-person tours for high-paying corporate groups and parties. And he even offers coaching services to museums that want to develop their audiences.
Consider the matrix when narrowing down your unique ideas. Having a great concept is the first step. But you’ll also want to make sure you can turn it into a profitable business going forward.
Finding your million-dollar idea
Your unique idea might not come while you’re playing cards, cutting clothes, or strolling through a museum. But it will likely come while you’re exploring something you’re passionate about and skilled in. In fact, all of the ideas above started with personal experiences or hobbies. But most important, they were something that people were willing to pay for.
Once you find an idea, don’t be afraid to test it out with friends, family, and colleagues. Create a prototype, mock up a plan, and get feedback. If people keep asking you to tell them more, you might have the start of a successful business. Maybe even a million-dollar business idea.