Sell something people want. Sounds obvious right? But most people, including me, start with the opposite proposition: this is what I do or what I have; who wants it? Yes, I have been guilty of this myself on more than one occasion. "I have revenue generation/marketing/business development/startup expertise; all I need to do is find people/companies that need that kind of support and convince them to pay me for it!" That is the hard way.
What's the easier way? Start with the need then work backwards and see if you can fill that need. In conversation with founders I often say, 'Stop reinventing the wheel. Open a hardware store in a neighborhood that needs a hardware store'. I do not mean it literally (although, why not?). What I mean is, find a need and fill it. Too often founders and dreamers come up with a cool idea, a cool bit of tech, a great app, then try to figure out who would be up for paying for it. Too often the answer is no one or no one that does not share your last name and/or college basketball allegiance.
Or, they want to do a bunch of things: we develop software, consult on implementation, embed engineers in larger companies, train your team, brew beer, smoke meats, process payments, plan one of a kind experiences for pets, etc. Pick a lane and stick with it! Again, I have been guilty of making this mistake. Focus!
Filling a need is easier in that success is more likely (to paraphrase Elon Musk: success should be one of the possible outcomes) not that getting things off the ground is easy (see Mars colony video). In fact, there is more work on the front end in this model but less risk. The preliminary work, however, could save you from doing lots of work later and, if you are successful with the preliminary work, then you should have an easier time convincing people to work with you and paying them to do that work. And, if raising money is something you want to do, the preparation will benefit you there as well.
Note, this is not how to change the world or how to make a billion dollars although maybe you could do either (both!). This is about starting a business that will make money which is the primary goal of most entrepreneurs. Some examples: I recently heard about a guy who has a business swapping out batteries on electric vehicle fleets. He has contracts with local utilities that operate fleets of battery powered service vehicles. Every night his team pulls out the dead batteries, replaces them with fully charged batteries and charges the flat batteries for the following night. It is not glamorous but it is a service his clients need and are willing to pay for. Another guy I know runs a janitorial business for nightclubs. His cleaning crews go into clubs and clean up the mess from the night before so when the next batch of revelers arrive they enter a fresh, clean, glamorous scene. Nasty, nasty work but necessary and since someone has to do it, he fills that void. Another guy, the husband of my cousin (which might make him my cousin, I never know), was in residential real estate management in NY, managing huge apartment towers. He saw how hard tenants were on floors. He also saw that units with hardwood floors were more desirable (and commanded a higher price) than carpeted units. But, replacing/repairing hardwood floors is expensive, messy and time consuming. So, he set out to create an easy hardwood alternative that snaps into place over existing floors, is inexpensive and, most importantly, is super durable. Now he is in the flooring business and his first customers were his former employers.
Perhaps all of these guys had the idea before they knew about the demand. But they didn't incorporate, hire teams, work on marketing materials, register domain names and start Tweeting until AFTER they tested the hypothesis with actual customers and/or analysis. We can all do that by making phone calls or sending emails to likely potential customers asking if they might be willing to pay for whatever it is you are considering selling. Next, spend a few bucks on Google or Facebook ads to reach beyond your friends/family/coworkers and track clicks, registrations and pre-orders. You do not need a product or inventory to do this. All you need is a landing page or registration form, which you can set up for almost nothing (or actually nothing) using LaunchRock, Wix, Google Pages, Shopify or dozens of other tools. Do not take money, simply track interest and let the potential customers know that your product/service will be available shortly and then keep their contact info in a safe place so you can sell to them when you do launch.
Keep your eyes and ears (and mind) open for opportunities. I recently saw a John Oliver piece on the sorry state of private dialysis centers in America. It occurred to me that there might be room in the market for an honest alternative. Now, the last thing I want to do is open a dialysis business BUT I recognized the need in the market and had a few ideas for how one could approach it differently.
On a trip to Israel last year I noticed tons of (ugly) electric bikes on the roads (and sidewalks) and wondered, why are there so many electric bikes here. One answer was that they were extremely cheap (which is why they were so ugly) so that made them more accessible. In the US the average electric bike costs over $1,000, about the same as a used motorcycle or even a beat up car so the choice is not easy- motorcycle and car are more versatile, have more range, can take passengers and cargo. In Israel the price was less than half so the choice was electric bike, normal bike or bus. Many people went electric. I wondered (and continue to wonder) if there is a market for inexpensive electric bikes in the US. I did NOT buy a shipping container full of electric bikes and try to find that market. I did do some preliminary research into the availability of bikes and the demand for them in major metropolitan areas around the US. If I do go into the electric bike business I will take pre-orders BEFORE filling my garage with them.
If you pay attention you will find there are openings all over the place: your kids' school outsources afterschool programs, your city government hires consultants and contractors for a huge range of projects, your neighbors are looking for ways to save on electric bills- what luck! You just launched a solar power brokerage!
If you fill a need and can make a good living being the boss, who needs glamour or billion dollar exits? You are an entrepreneur and you sell something people actually want or, better yet, something they need.