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The Zig/Zag Technique to finding an online business idea

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Think about the average guy approaching the average woman at a bar. What does he say?

  • “Hi…do you come here a lot?”
  • “Hi, my name’s John…”
  • “Hi…what are you drinking?”

These seem like normal things to say, right?


When you’re the same as everyone else, you might as well not exist. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man, a woman, a life coach, a stylist, an analytics guru, or a language tutor. Whether you’re trying to get a date or start an online business, if you’re the same as everyone, you’re doomed.

No matter how beautiful your website is. No matter how exceptional your guarantee is. No matter how much you care.

This is where the concept of ZIGGING and ZAGGING comes in.

Where others zig, you zag.

When done correctly, you instantly stand out, selecting the right audience, while the wrong audience fades away.

Let me show you a zig/zag example. Remember when I used to write exclusively about “personal finance” on my site?

EVERYONE ZIGS: Keep a budget! Say no to lattes! Cut back on everything and save until you’re 60.

RAMIT ZAGS: Um, no. None of you so-called experts understand human psychology. Focus on the Big Wins, automate your money (because nobody really wants to be a financial expert), and earn enough to spend, guilt-free, on whatever you want. And tell jokes about twins, my mom, etc.

Do you see what happened?

A ton of frugalistas hated me and wrote about how I was entitled, privileged, and an asshole. Most of their blogs are gone now.

But the people who mattered stuck around. These are the people who said, “Hey, wait a minute. That makes sense. I don’t want to live like a pauper. I want to go out with my friends and buy a round of drinks. I’m willing to put in the work — but show me what to do!”

A movement was born. And a highly profitable business, too.

YOU CAN DO THE SAME. When they zig, you zag.

Why I’m sharing the “Zig/Zag” concept with you now

Have you noticed how excited people are to finally hear me talking about creating an online business? I could open Zero to Launch tomorrow and a ton of people would join.

But I’m in the enviable position of not needing to make a quick buck — which means I can take my time showing you the nuances of how powerful an online business can be before I ever open a premium course.

Put another way, you don’t just need more information. THE INFORMATION IS OUT THERE! So why haven’t you already started a successful online business? Today, I’m going to make you APPLY it.

Today, I’m going to show you just ONE part of this zig/zag process.

Think back to the last time you saw an expert trying to sell something online– maybe it was a personal trainer, or a life coach, or even a productivity app. Do you notice how 99% of these websites are EXACTLY THE SAME?

These me-too promise to help you find “your inner self” or to “lose that stubborn weight.” Easy, fast, secure! And yet you’re wondering…how are you any different than the 5,000 other options out there?

Here’s the first step to differentiating yourself: Deeply understand the language of your market.

Notice how I never talk about “compound-interest charts” or “amortization schedules” or even “keeping a budget”? BECAUSE NOBODY CARES!

When you can understand people’s real language, you can connect authentically, instead of marketing AT them. It’s the difference between being a salesman and being a true trusted advisor.

Today’s exercise: Mastering your market’s language

Last week, I asked you to do a blue-sky brainstorm of 3 ideas you would love to create an online business around. You came up with some amazing ideas.

Now, I’d like you to go one step further and gently “test” your idea. (By the way, don’t worry if your idea is half-formed, or if you don’t even have an idea for your online business. I’ll show you how to do this, step by step, in the Zero to Launch course.)

An idea in a vacuum is delusion. But when you test it against the market, your idea may slowly reveal itself to be a PROFITABLE IDEA.

Here’s what I want you to do (20 minutes):

  1. Find 1 person — JUST ONE! — who might be interested in your idea. You can do this via email or in person. If you’re not sure, ask ANYONE remotely close to the idea, even your parents. We’re not aiming for perfection right now, just people.
  2. “Test” for language using this script: “I’m thinking of starting some kind of website around [YOUR IDEA]. When you talk to your friends about it, what do you say? What’s the biggest problem around [YOUR IDEA]?”
  3. Write down the exact language they use. Did they really say, “I want a solution that’s easy, fast, and secure”? No, they did not. WRITE DOWN WHAT THEY ACTUALLY SAY. “I hate how these jeans look on me” is a terrific response. “Every day I wake up, I just dread going to work” is another.

Share your results in the comments below.

Remember, your post should contain…

– Original idea:

– Revised idea (based on what you learned):

– What you THOUGHT they would say:

– What they ACTUALLY said:

– What SURPRISED you about this exercise?

99% of people who want to start an online business don’t even take this step. But Zero to Launch students know that if they put the work in ahead of time, their business is “virtually guaranteed” to work — and you can make 10x+ what others do.

*  *  *  *  *

P.S. Do you realize this entire post is zagging while everyone else zigs?

Zig/Zag #1: So many other people will simply shove information down your throat like a filthy Hometown Buffet meal. You don’t need more information — you need to apply it. Even taking 20 minutes sets you apart from the wantrepreneurs who talk about starting a business over and over…and never actually do anything.

Zig/Zag #2: Incidentally, last week, I had thousands and thousands of comments. People are literally emailing me, “Take my money!” And I could. But instead of maximizing short-term profit, I’m walking you through the nuances of online business over three weeks of free material. Do you see why? Short term, I lose out on profits. But long term, I’m actually showing you how to create an online business — how to find an idea, how to package it, price it, and market it — so you see that it’s possible if you follow a step-by-step system.

Zig/Zag #3: I gave a free presentation on never-before-revealed mistakes I made in creating my online business. Who else do you know who does this? Now, you can join my Zero to Launch private list — free — for case studies and your spot on the waitlist.)

Don’t Forget — Complete today’s exercise and share your results in the comments below. I’ll be reviewing all of the responses.

UPDATE — New Zero to Launch course reviews!

Check this out, several Zero to Launch beta students have posted detailed reviews of the Zero to Launch course on their own blogs. You can hear all about their experiences — including pros and cons, and who the course is right for — in their own words. I’ll keep updating this list as more reviews come out:

I’ve collected more Zero to Launch reviews, direct from students here. Check them out.

Want to learn more about Zero to Launch and get instant access to more case studies? Just join the Zero to Launch waitlist (takes 20 seconds).

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  1. – Original idea:
    Type II Titan (Recently found out I was diabetic and I’ve been regulating my blood glucose WITHOUT needles/insulin.

    – Revised idea (based on what you learned):
    Still the same idea, but WAY more insights based on what they said.

    – What you THOUGHT they would say:
    ‘The biggest hassle is pricking my finger everyday’, or ‘I don’t want to watch what I eat’

    – What they ACTUALLY said:
    ‘I just want to have a body that isn’t trying to kill me.’

    ‘Also, I feel kind of futile about controlling it sometimes, because I’ll do everything right and end up low or high anyway sometimes’

    ‘I’m pissed that non diabetics just don’t get it. This disease is all- consuming and takes up every single second of every day. It never f’n goes away.’

    – What SURPRISED you about this exercise?
    The words they actually used were far from the sterile, top of mind things that I expected. Pricking your finger is NOTHING if you’re actually worried about death. Feeling like you’re constantly fighting a losing battle is more powerful and emotional than ‘wanting to eat whatever’. Having these actual words and thoughts will help me build a better offering and marketing materials. Thanks Ramit.

    • Awesome insight for such a modest amount of work. Well done.

      To everyone else: See how a small amount of customer research can radically change the way you market your idea to customers?

    • Absolutely Ramit! I’ve haven’t had the full fledged conversation yet with someone… I’ve tried, but finally I’ve finally got someone scheduled. I’ve learned so much already… To name a few- One, I should ask about them and especially if it’s a good time for them to talk, consider them and catch them in a good mood if you can. Two, I’m uncomfortable discussing my idea with strangers. And THREE!! This is major. I’ve realized I hear people ALL THE TIME complain about the exact problem I’d like to help them solve. <<< Sounds a bit crazy to realize the value I can contribute with little effort. Not to mention if I teach them, they will SAVE money, and gain peace of mind. I'm tempted to post what I've already got prepared. But I have feeling you're no fan of an unfinished product…

    • Hi Nick,
      I think that is incredible that you have zagged in your life in regulating this yourself without just doing what everybody else does. And so wonderful you can share this with others and save their health. I wish you the best with that.


  2. I’ve started 3 online businesses in the last 3 years. The first was incredibly generic and sadly made me around $8 an hour.

    But since I’ve been reading Ramit’s blog since 2008 I quickly realised my mistake. So i zagged with a higher value offer, targeted a better market using their language and I immediately started earning around $20 an hour.

    And for my third business I decided to sell something people desperately need and literally used their exact language to do it. In fact I created 100+ page files of this language for my marketing and I’m almost making $80 an hour with it now.

    Powerful stuff indeed and Ramit gets huge respect from me for teaching this stuff so well. Let me know if you want a testimonial Ramit.

  3. Original Idea: Stop Cheating on Paleo

    Revised Idea: Focus on Paleo principles. Change language so I don’t exclude people who still want to improve their eating habits without feeling limited in food choices. Turn guidelines into tiers based on experience with Paleo. L1 – never tried eliminating grains and dairy L2 – tried before and want to get back on track

    What I thought they would say:
    That’s great! I know so many people who would throw money at you. Perhaps I’m in a vacuum because I talk to clients all day who complain about staying consistent with Paleo.

    What they said:
    – I want to eat in a way that is healthy and realistic.
    – When I tell people I do Paleo they say, ‘what’s Paleo?’ and I usually say no grains no dairy.
    – Once you do it for awhile you realize how much better you feel. I had pizza this weekend and after I was like “ack!”
    – Cooking is hard at first. I’m used to flying by the seat of my pants and when I started Paleo I was like ‘heck! I don’t know what we can eat!’ Now I can just throw things together and look at a cookbook for fun recipes.
    – I don’t know anyone else at [name of crossfit gym] that is doing strict Paleo, maybe gluten free but even [coach] doesn’t eat that strict

    What surprised me:
    – I’m still shocked at how many people have not heard of Paleo.
    – Recognized how ridiculous I sound when I tell people, “Paleo is about eliminating foods that cause inflammation.” [Insert glazed over face here].
    – Changing eating habits takes months

    Side note: I signed up for E1k and I’m using your information to categorize my customers needs and tweak my personal training services. I’ve categorized my services into 3 buckets and I start testing on existing customers tomorrow. I’m excited to have a concrete plan to not only deliver more value but how to approach asking for more money for my services without “asking.” The course is fantastic so far!

    • If you had a class that told me how to eat paleo and helped me setup meals each week (literally like gave me a list of stuff to buy at the grocery store), I’d pay for that.

      Weekly Google Hangouts.

      I bought Whole30 (the book), but I haven’t executed on it.

    • Brandon, thanks for your thoughts. Unfortunately, there is alot of legal gray area surrounding nutrition… and I admit, I’m struggling to wrap my head around it. A Paleo class/group that keeps people accountable will be a good starting place.

    • I’m going through these ZtL prompts while doing E1K too!
      It’s dovetailing rather nicely for me 🙂
      Also – I’m a “want to be healthier” but not “want to be full-paleo” girl – if you gave me a super-easy, super-basic recipe/meal guide on eating paleo a few times a week at a low barrier cost, that would get me and probably people like me in the door. If that’s a demographic you’re ever interested in courting, that is 🙂

    • Margaret, the E1K class = mind blown… not sure why I was dragging ass starting a business. Thanks for the info! At a lower cost, I’m not sure how much support I would be able to provide since that involves more time on my end so people would need some semblance of motivation and autonomy. In my experience, clients I’ve tried to transition to Paleo need alot of structure and accountability… but maybe the steps I provide are falling short.

    • Diandra, have you thought about segmenting by WHY people want to follow a Paleo diet? I’m someone who would have absolutely zero interest in following a strict Paleo diet if I didn’t have a medical reason. As it is, I have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and have to follow a FODMAP-elimination diet (hopefully switching to just low-FODMAP eventually). Although I’m not quite in your target demographic since Paleo alone wouldn’t cut it for me, I’m SURE that others could relate to the emotional rollercoaster I’ve been on while trying to adapt to all of my new rules.

      I normally eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and now have to eat limited quantities/types of both, plus no gluten, no honey, no lactose–and I did not choose this!! I have felt socially isolated, desperate, hungry, obsessive, confused about what I can eat, embarrassed about about explaining my restrictions at restaurants, stressed that I will eat the wrong things, rebellious, and most of all, mentally exhausted from thinking about it so much. Social settings can be awful and if I forget to bring enough food to work, there are few restaurants around that can accommodate my dietary needs (if I can manage to explain them). Cheating has its own repercussions, of course.

      Other people with food restrictions have told me that they relate to a lot of this. I just met a woman whose husband started following a very strict Paleo diet for medical reasons and we commiserated about how hard it can be. (He is well over six feet tall and 150lbs.)

      Anyway, my point is that your marketing materials would be completely different for people who have to make a change versus people who want to or sort of want to. There is so much emotion for you to tap into, depending on the demographic(s) you target.

    • Hi Diandra… Have you thought about setting your business up as a Private Membership Association? This way, you won’t have a lot of those legal concerns because what ever the private members decide to do is up to them. As long as you do no harm to anyone, you are free to provide nutritional information, in the form of classes, to your private members…just a thought. 🙂

  4. My parents are getting older and needing more health care, prescriptions and GOOD coverage. Asking a couple of friends, they mostly just take whatever their former company offered or got a “Friend” to help them figure it out. I really thought they would say it was important enough for them to do the research and get the right coverage but they actually said it was confusing and expensive. I sense a fear about their actually getting older and needing more medical care and a refusal to really pay attention. These folks have some money because they worked all of their lives and surely their families would want/need help figuring all this out. I know there are businesses out there that do this already but they are BIG and not personable and this is too delicate to leave to a “storefront”.

  5. Ramit,

    I’ve been following you for about two years now. I’ve enjoyed and employed the materials, motivation and perspective. I have kept my day job, but am now also earning $100/hr doing consulting on the side (up from $30/hr). This “zig/zag” is exactly what I needed to be thinking about in terms of “what’s next” and how to create value, because it is making me NOT think about how to make money so much as to focus on how to have fun figuring out how to solve a problem. Thank you!

  6. Original Idea:

    “Built to Last: How to Survive (And Eventually Get Out Of) Your Long Distance Relationship”

    After I had wrote that, I had the thought that people might not want to “survive” their LD relationship or “get out of it, i.e. move in together”. I knew the language was off.

    Revised idea: “Built to Last: How to Make Your Long Distance Relationship Work”

    Before I talked to 4 people about this idea, I thought about what people might really want and made an assumption: That they simply wanted their relationship to be healthy and to WORK.

    What people actually said:

    -one of the biggest concerns was having a system for checking in and maintaining the relationship
    -how to deal with having a relationship via technology…i.e.–is my bf/gf “real” whether they’re an hour, or 3,000 miles away?
    -how to deal with spending a lot of time apart…how to continue to get to know this person if you’re not with them all the time

    What surprised me:

    I had thought of this in a different way originally, but people trying to be sure the person they’re dating is “real”–that’s a language insight I could have never nailed down on my own because I hadn’t seen it that way.

  7. – Original idea: How to use energy manipulation to get what you want.

    – Revised idea (based on what you learned): Everyday uses for sexual energy.

    – What you THOUGHT they would say: I want to learn how to make energy balls and fields.

    – What they ACTUALLY said: “Basics. Directing it with intent. Healing minor physical ailments. Manipulation. Fighting. Defense… I’m most interested in your technique for sexual applications and using sexual energy and such. YOUR unique twist.”

    – What SURPRISED you about this exercise?: That my test subject immediately thought it wouldn’t gain much of an audience. Which is completely understandable — and why I wouldn’t want to do this at all.

    I feel like I don’t belong here at all. I want to be build a business around my t-shirt designs, and get to the point where everything is automated between the printing/fulfillment company and the stores and website that sells the shirts. I just don’t know how t-shirts can help people… Or at least, I don’t know how to put it in words that won’t sound like a crock of shit.

    • I would love to learn about energy manipulation! However, it isn’t important enough for me to pay for the knowledge.

      You could try selling your designs through …. not nearly as profitable as doing it all on your own I guess but at least it would get you started and you wouldn’t have to invest in inventory right off the bat.

    • So, you want to build your t-shirt business but you feel like it’s selfish because it doesn’t help anyone? Why not build a model like Tom’s Shoes – where when a t-shirt is bought you donate another one to a person in need? Or make some of the profits go towards a charity organization?

      Sounds like you know what you want to do – why waste time testing something you don’t?

    • Are you sure your subject really was in your target audience? If they think not many people would be interested, and they weren’t intensely interested themselves, then you might not have found your audience yet. Maybe you had someone who prefers to self-teach, or doesn’t want to spend enough money on learning that it would cover a class?

    • Adana,
      I belong to another business community where a young lady has the same idea of promoting T-shirts that ‘help’ people. Look up Micaela Passeri and her ‘I Love Who I Am’ T-shirts. Great ideas, great designs. Hope it helps.

    • I am an energy healer/teacher and focus a lot of my teaching on energy integrity vs energy manipulation. I HATE this idea of teaching people how to seduce/manipulate others through sexual energy. Humans have been doing this already for eons including in sales. Teach them how to use their power appropriately…please.

  8. Original idea: Success in Golf through stories

    Revised idea: Email marketing for golf course instructors (they have no clue)

    Thought they would say that they wanted to hear tips from more known golf pros and businessmen.

    They actually said they wanted help getting traction and helping their teaching business grow.

    I was surprised at how simple but deep his response was. His business needs revenue not tips. It’s hard hearing what a customer wants and canning/tweaking what you were going to offer to what they need.

  9. Hi Ramit,
    Thank you first and foremost for the work you have done and continue to do, i’m a huge fan. I purchased the book years ago but no courses yet so I’m in your debt already but if you have any suggestions for my business I could really use any additional help or suggestions. fyi – I’m working full time on this now though I really just rep another company as I haven’t established my own business.

    original Idea: Help home and business owners connect with local Tri state solar companies and understand their offerings and the market.
    I met with several solar installers and negotiated prices and packages for high quality services and systems that I bring to customers.. Then help grow sales and installations(and collect commissions of sales) by marketing, promoting services and establishing partnerships. (I have a background in web marketing and sales …some partnerships are established and business has been breaking even for a few months with signs of hope but struggling to establish unique presence and referrals are just starting to come in from first few deals so starting slow)
    some starting ideas were and but localsolar produced job resumes and trending sounds more like a stuffy news site. both failed as a concept and I honestly don’t like either site anymore so somewhat gave up on them… but I can make websites….

    Revised: Solar consulting business to teach people about the benefits of installing solar on their home or business… If I could teach more people about the tax benefits, the state incentives, the energy savings etc it could lead to ongoing qualified people reaching out for quotes for local services…

    What you thought they would say:
    its weird that your consulting for you own company but then you show up representing a different company. (this has been my struggle as alot of my partners companys are setup so leads go straight to them, I get leftovers or need to generate own leads which can be expensive and competitive)

    What they actually say:
    Dad- “how are going to make money?” “the problem is with the cost of putting it on the roof and the lifespan of the system” “you need to devise a way to get power when the grid goes down”
    Sister – “Solar consulting or solar in general. what do you mean? I would be careful with the word consulting better to say solar company you should say your an independent contractor who partners with XYZ solar… no one cares they just want a solar company to get the job done”

    What surprised you about this exercise?
    My sister didn’t like the word consulting and I now I really don’t either. My dad has common concerns for me and aspects of the installation and wants a feature that I can’t technically help with. Feedback helps but I feel stuck with building my business and how I can add the most value to customers and my partners.

  10. – Original idea:
    A blog based on real estate and deciding between owning/renting after recent personal success.

    – Revised idea (based on what you learned):
    More of a coaching service where you actually run the numbers with someone and walk them through the whole process.

    – What you THOUGHT they would say:

    I want to save lots of money, make the right decision, and not be freaking broke in the future because I made a horrible mistake with real estate.

    – What they ACTUALLY said:

    “I just want to move out. I don’t want to throw money away on rent. My parents said I should buy.” Just the usual verbiage when it comes to real estate.

    – What SURPRISED you about this exercise?

    We will just accept information as fact without reviewing it objectively.

    You also can’t convince someone that they have a problem. Many of my friends are dying to buy a place as if it’s a new pair of jeans.

    • Martin, I would love to learn about real estate and deciding between owning/renting. I am currently a real estate agent and fairly young, 21. I would like to hear about your personal success in real estate. Let me know.