🎧 How to Find Your Next Big Idea Hiding on the Internet

'A16z podcast' host Steph Smith’s masterclass in validating business ideas

Every illustration/Aspen Ideas.

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TL;DR: Today we’re releasing a new episode of our podcast How Do You Use ChatGPT? I go in depth with Steph Smith, a16z podcast host, online creator, and queen of internet rabbit holes. As we talk, we vet two business ideas live on the show using a suite of online tools and strategies. Watch on X or YouTube, or listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

The next big idea is hiding in plain sight. It’s right here, scattered across the internet in incoherent fragments. Steph Smith, my guest for this episode, knows how to connect the dots.

Steph Smith is a prolific online creator, host of the a16z podcast, author of a book about building a successful blog called Doing Content Right, and creator of Internet Pipes, a toolkit to surface useful insights on the internet. 

I sat down with Steph to explore the internet through her curious, data-driven eyes. You might think she has an uncanny knack for spotting trends online, but I discover that there’s a method to her approach. Steph also reveals the internet’s most underrated advantage: validating business ideas cheaply and quickly. Figuring out if an idea is worth it before going all-in is a huge unlock for creative minds everywhere. As we talk, I pitch Steph two businesses, and we use an arsenal of tools and strategies to vet them live on the show. 

This episode is a must-watch for anyone who spends time online and wants to make money on the internet. Here’s a taste:

  • ChatGPT for idea generation. Steph leverages ChatGPT to brainstorm workable ideas around stuff she’s thinking about—she recently used an icebreaker it suggested at a meetup she was hosting. “[C]hatGPT is really good at helping me extrapolate from a base,” Steph says.
  • Collecting information curated for you. ChatGPT helps Steph come up with new ideas and “fill”[s] them in with details by pulling information from different places to answer her queries. “[C]hatGPT questions are the ones where you're like, ‘I actually don't think this exists explicitly like this on Google,’” she says.
  • Presenting information in a way that resonates. Steph not only collects, but also understands, information via ChatGPT. “[T]his program can take something very complex and usher it back down and also the other way ’round,” she says—like explaining dark matter in the voice of Spongebob.
  • ChatGPT as a sparring partner. ChatGPT informs Steph’s opinions by showing her the “other side” of a debate—especially when “I have a strong opinion here, but I also have a feeling I don't know enough about this subject,” she explains. 
  • Organize data with AI. Steph partners with ChatGPT to structure data in useful formats: She got GPT-4 to categorize and format a long list of words for her database of untranslatable words. Steph had to correct a few mistakes, but she explains that “instead of me doing it myself for six hours…I could get 90 percent plus there in 15 minutes. That’s much better.” 

In the next part of the interview, Steph helps me use the internet to validate a business idea I hold close to my heart (or, more accurately, my head)—making warm baseball caps. 

  • Use Google to gauge demand. Steph’s first move is Googling the product and using an SEO tool to find metrics like the number of searches per month. Baked into Google searches are people’s “wants, needs, desires,” she explains, so while the raw search volume doesn’t determine if an idea is good or bad, it does help to get a sense of market size. 
  • Analyze customer reviews. Another tactic Steph uses to gauge demand is scouring customer reviews of comparable products. She thinks two- and three-star reviews are “little pockets” of insight because they represent relatively balanced, practical opinions. 
  • Pay attention to Google’s search suggestions. Steph dives deeper with a secondary keyword analysis, to check if people are searching for “synonym permutations” of warm baseball caps. Unfortunately, we come up empty. “[A]nytime Google is trying to take you in a different direction…that’s a pretty strong indicator,” she says.
  • Use SEO tools! Steph is an advocate of plugins that surface insights as you browse. “[Keywords Everywhere] is great because it allows you to spot things passively, which…is one of the most underrated things that you can do on your internet journey,” she says. 

The second business idea we investigate is market demand for a D2C curry paste for a Thai noodle dish that I love called khao soi.

  • Break down Google’s search results. When Steph Googles khao soi, she points out that most of the results are recipe pages. “Google tells you the intent of people searching it just by nature of what is on the page,” she says. 
  • Research related products. Steph recommends contextualizing absolute search volume numbers by looking up related products. “There's no straight answer as to whether 110,000 [the number of search results per month for khao soi] is good, but we can also look at something that's a little more popular and common, something like pad thai or green curry to see,” she says.
  • Spot the trend. Steph’s next move is understanding whether the search is trending up or down on Google Trends (spoiler alert: We find that khao soi is trending up). “I love to see charts like this, by the way, which are like low volume, but like growing for sure,” Steph says. 
  • Explore different spaces on the internet. Steph explores restaurants nearby that serve khao soi and notices that most of them are not rated well. “Some people might be thinking, ‘Oh well, not all of this is extremely data-driven,’ but I think what's helpful along the research journey is just picking up on things,” she says.
  • Find relevant subreddits. Another internet corner Steph likes to explore is Reddit, with a tool that visualizes “interconnections on Reddit in any given subreddit.” Steph points out that Asian food subreddits indicate that popular dishes like ramen have “super fans who really take offense to when it's done badly.”
  • Leverage Reddit tools. Steph recommends using Gummy Search to distill information from relevant subreddits. We dive into a Thai food subreddit to get data on top posts, emerging themes, and common keywords.
  • Competitor analysis. To refine our idea-validation process, Steph suggests looking up potential competitors. To kickstart this she searches for khao soi recipe kits and feeds the resulting websites “into a tool like similarweb to see the volume, the number of page views they have a month” she says. 
  • Decode what success looks like in the market. Steph goes deeper on competitor web pages through similarweb to understand the market better. She notices that they don’t do any paid search, which sparks questions like, “What if I actually juiced my product with paid—could I outcompete them?”

It looks like khao soi might just be a better business than warm baseball caps. However, the internet won’t tell you which business you should start. According to Steph, going down internet rabbit holes to validate ideas often comes down to a personal decision. “People just need to decide, from these data points, is this the kind of business I want to build?” she says. 

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You can check out the episode on X, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or YouTube. Links and timestamps are below:

  1. Introduction 01:12
  2. Leveraging ChatGPT to generate great ideas 22:11
  3. Why ChatGPT is ideal for understanding complex concepts 29:29
  4. How to use ChatGPT to organize huge datasets 48:00
  5. Shark tank! Dan pitches Steph business ideas 1:00:41
  6. Steph’s first move while validating a business idea on the internet 1:07:51
  7. What to look for in a customer review 1:11:09
  8. Tips on secondary keyword searches 1:17:45
  9. How to gather market data from a simple Google search 1:26:24
  10. What type of trend charts depict a good market 1:31:55
  11. Using SEO tools to find useful insights from Reddit: 1:34:11
  12. How to gather data about competitors: 1:42:37
  13. Lightning-round questions from X 1:55:51

What do you use ChatGPT for? Have you found any interesting or surprising use cases? We want to hear from you—and we might even interview you. Reply here to talk to me!

Miss an episode? Catch up on my recent conversations with OpenAI developer advocate Logan Kilpatrick, clinical psychologist Dr. Gena Gorlin, economist Tyler Cowen, writer and entrepreneur David Perell, software researcher Geoffrey Lit, Waymark founder Nathan Labenz, Notion engineer Linus Lee, writer Nat Eliason, and Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia, and learn how they use ChatGPT.

If you’re enjoying my work, here are a few things I recommend:

The episode transcript is for paying subscribers.

Thanks to Rhea Purohit for editorial support.

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