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  • Writer's pictureStephen Plimmer

Nearly-free sources of new innovation ideas

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

While there are countless market research methods, ranging from simple surveys to advanced measurements of consumers’ brain waves in the form of neuromarketing, the source of new product ideas has always been wider than formal market research. So, without spending much more than a cup of coffee or the price of a parking ticket, here are six places to derive your next big business idea, either for your current employer or your own start-up. I’m interested where you’d look too.

The price of ideas

If you want to generate new ideas, then there are plenty of innovation agencies that can help. I recently found one that shares their prices for running a 1-day innovation workshop (£10k), gives you an expert assessment of your innovation process, or creates “potential new ventures” for £50k, and even works with you to develop a minimal viable product for £200k.

(Our own services do similar and possibly far more for about 10%-15% of those prices, but this blog is not about us!)

The spirit of X2Y is to be resourceful and agile, to cut costs, and ensure that insight projects are aligned with the questions that generate growth and avoid risk.

Free or very cheap ideas

The fact that much historical innovation does not rely on such formal innovation processes begs the question of where to source inspiration and ideas that don’t incur such costs, which are particularly prohibitive for smaller businesses or solo entrepreneurs.

So, here are six such categories of idea sources that each has a proven track record:

Conferences and coffee shops: In his book, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From”, one of the sources for insight provided by Stephen Johnson was “coffee houses”. He’d noted that innovations had historically been prevalent around universities and hubs of creativity that could be attributed to meetings in the local coffee shops. For example, merchants, shipowners, and underwriters gathered at the Lloyds coffee house in the C17th to discuss maritime insurance, leading to the establishment of Lloyd's as a formal insurance marketplace. These days, the opportunity to meet thinkers with complementary (but not the same) knowledge as our own comes via conferences, business groups, or extended social networks. Whose knowledge, but with your own, could create a new interesting proposition?

Repurposing: A long-time favourite source of new products comes from businesses asking “Where else could our capabilities be applied?” Patagonia started out making climbing clothing and later applied their skills to making clothing for hardware stores, North Atlantic fishermen and babies’ nappies! Recently, Tesla manufactured electric vehicles and moved into electric storage.

Customer problems: Starting as a minerals company, 3M have demonstrated a drive to solve customer problems as much as anyone. Through the 1920s, they made sandpaper for local woodworking plants, Scotch brand tape to help car manufacturers paint cars more neatly, and, later, reflecting materials to improve highway signs. Today, you can find such insights in customer complaints, feedback, competitors' online reviews and social media.

Adjacent products: Johnson also makes the point that good ideas don’t come from looking backwards or forwards, particularly, but more from looking at what is “adjacent”. In other words, innovations are a mutation of a product that already exists but changed in some critical, better way for a particular group of customers. Dyson vacuum cleaners left out the bags. Ryanair pioneered the budget airline model by stripping out ancillary services and using lower-cost airports to minimise costs. How can one or two features of existing products be changed for the better?

Questioning: In his book “Seeing What Others Don’t”, Gary Klein found several thought patterns that led to new innovations. Someone makes a new connection between a problem and a solution, spots coincidences, identifies curious outliers and examines what made them different, or simply finds themselves facing a new problem no one has solved before. Penicillin, microwave ovens and super glue were all created by inventors where experiments turned up unexpected results but the inventor persisted to understand why and discovered an application by doing so. So, what do successful products have in common in your market, and what makes for successful outliers?


In summary, the insights that create new product ideas are often derived as a result of deliberate observation, interpretation and mental processing. Research projects can indeed shortcut and accelerate these approaches, but the same underlying principles still apply.

At X2Y, while we do indeed carry out research to deepen understanding and test hypotheses, we are also keen to use "free" techniques such as social media analysis and observations. Not only do they save costs but they capture a customer in-situ, without biasing their behaviour through the research itself.

If you'd like support to accelerate your own idea product and innovation pipeline without breaking the bank, then feel free to drop us a line to talk more about the options.

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