Startup Academy 101: How to Get Startup Ideas - Part 1

The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It's to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.

The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they're something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing. Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook all began this way.

1. Problems

Why is it so important to work on a problem you have? Among other things, it ensures the problem really exists. It sounds obvious to say you should only work on problems that exist. And yet by far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.

Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That is doubly dangerous: it doesn't merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them.

We call these "made-up" or "sitcom" startup ideas. Imagine one of the characters on a TV show was starting a startup. The writers would have to invent something for it to do. But coming up with good startup ideas is hard. It's not something you can do for the asking. So (unless they got amazingly lucky) the writers would come up with an idea that sounded plausible, but was actually bad.

For example, a social network for pet owners. It doesn't sound obviously mistaken. Millions of people have pets. Often they care a lot about their pets and spend a lot of money on them. Surely many of these people would like a site where they could talk to other pet owners. Not all of them perhaps, but if just 2 or 3 percent were regular visitors, you could have millions of users. You could serve them targeted offers, and maybe charge for premium features.

The danger of an idea like this is that when you run it by your friends with pets, they don't say "I would never use this." They say "Yeah, maybe I could see using something like that." Even when the startup launches, it will sound plausible to a lot of people. They don't want to use it themselves, at least not right now, but they could imagine other people wanting it. Sum that reaction across the entire population, and you have zero users.

Lesson Learnt #1: Start with your own problems and solve them.

2. Well

When a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they're making — not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently. Usually this initial group of users is small, for the simple reason that if there were something that large numbers of people urgently needed and that could be built with the amount of effort a startup usually puts into a version one, it would probably already exist. Which means you have to compromise on one dimension: you can either build something a large number of people want a small amount, or something a small number of people want a large amount. Choose the latter. Not all ideas of that type are good startup ideas, but nearly all good startup ideas are of that type. You can either dig a hole that's broad but shallow, or one that's narrow and deep, like a well.

Made-up startup ideas are usually of the first type. Lots of people are mildly interested in a social network for pet owners.

Nearly all good startup ideas are of the second type. Microsoft was a well when they made Altair Basic. There were only a couple thousand Altair owners, but without this software they were programming in machine language. Thirty years later Facebook had the same shape. Their first site was exclusively for Harvard students, of which there are only a few thousand, but those few thousand users wanted it a lot.

(Facebook was created in 2004 as a community only for Harvard students)

When you have an idea for a startup, ask yourself: who wants this right now? Who wants this so much that they'll use it even when it's a crappy version one made by a two-person startup they've never heard of? If you can't answer that, the idea is probably bad.

You don't need the narrowness of the well per se. It's depth you need; you get narrowness as a byproduct of optimizing for depth (and speed). But you almost always do get it. In practice the link between depth and narrowness is so strong that it's a good sign when you know that an idea will appeal strongly to a specific group or type of user.

But while demand shaped like a well is almost a necessary condition for a good startup idea, it's not a sufficient one. If Mark Zuckerberg had built something that could only ever have appealed to Harvard students, it would not have been a good startup idea. Facebook was a good idea because it started with a small market there was a fast path out of. Colleges are similar enough that if you build a facebook that works at Harvard, it will work at any college. So you spread rapidly through all the colleges. Once you have all the college students, you get everyone else simply by letting them in.

Similarly for Microsoft: Basic for the Altair; Basic for other machines; other languages besides Basic; operating systems; applications; IPO.

Lesson Learnt #2: Build something that few people need it urgently

3. Self

How do you tell whether there's a path out of an idea? How do you tell whether something is the germ of a giant company, or just a niche product? Often you can't. The founders of Airbnb didn't realize at first how big a market they were tapping. Initially they had a much narrower idea. They were going to let hosts rent out space on their floors during conventions. They didn't foresee the expansion of this idea; it forced itself upon them gradually. All they knew at first is that they were onto something. The most important thing to understand about paths out of the initial idea is the meta-fact that these are hard to see. So if you can't predict whether there's a path out of an idea, how do you choose between ideas? The truth is disappointing but interesting: if you're the right sort of person, you have the right sort of hunches. If you're at the leading edge of a field that's changing fast, when you have a hunch that something is worth doing, you're more likely to be right.

Being at the leading edge of a field doesn't mean you have to be one of the people pushing it forward. You can also be at the leading edge as a user. It was not so much because he was a programmer that Facebook seemed a good idea to Mark Zuckerberg as because he used computers so much. If you'd asked most 40 year olds in 2004 whether they'd like to publish their lives semi-publicly on the Internet, they'd have been horrified at the idea. But Mark already lived online; to him it seemed natural.

Paul Buchheit says that people at the leading edge of a rapidly changing field "live in the future." Combine that with Pirsig and you get:

Live in the future, then build what's missing.

That describes the way many if not most of the biggest startups got started. Neither Apple nor Yahoo nor Google nor Facebook were even supposed to be companies at first. They grew out of things their founders built because there seemed a gap in the world.

If you look at the way successful founders have had their ideas, it's generally the result of some external stimulus hitting a prepared mind. Bill Gates and Paul Allen hear about the Altair and think "I bet we could write a Basic interpreter for it." Drew Houston realizes he's forgotten his USB stick and thinks "I really need to make my files live online." Lots of people heard about the Altair. Lots forgot USB sticks. The reason those stimuli caused those founders to start companies was that their experiences had prepared them to notice the opportunities they represented.

The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not "think up" but "notice." We call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders' own experiences "organic" startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.

That may not have been what you wanted to hear. You may have expected recipes for coming up with startup ideas, and instead I'm telling you that the key is to have a mind that's prepared in the right way. But disappointing though it may be, this is the truth. And it is a recipe of a sort, just one that in the worst case takes a year rather than a weekend.

If you're not at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you can get to one. For example, anyone reasonably smart can probably get to an edge of programming (e.g. building mobile apps) in a year. Since a successful startup will consume at least 3-5 years of your life, a year's preparation would be a reasonable investment. Especially if you're also looking for a cofounder.

Lesson Learnt #3: Live in the future and build what is missing

4. Noticing

Once you're living in the future in some respect, the way to notice startup ideas is to look for things that seem to be missing. If you're really at the leading edge of a rapidly changing field, there will be things that are obviously missing. What won't be obvious is that they're startup ideas. So if you want to find startup ideas, don't merely turn on the filter "What's missing?" Also turn off every other filter, particularly "Could this be a big company?" There's plenty of time to apply that test later. But if you're thinking about that initially, it may not only filter out lots of good ideas, but also cause you to focus on bad ones.

Most things that are missing will take some time to see. You almost have to trick yourself into seeing the ideas around you.

Pay particular attention to things that chafe you. The advantage of taking the status quo for granted is not just that it makes life (locally) more efficient, but also that it makes life more tolerable. If you knew about all the things we'll get in the next 50 years but don't have yet, you'd find present day life pretty constraining, just as someone from the present would if they were sent back 50 years in a time machine. When something annoys you, it could be because you're living in the future.

When you find the right sort of problem, you should probably be able to describe it as obvious, at least to you. Which means, strangely enough, that coming up with startup ideas is a question of seeing the obvious. That suggests how weird this process is: you're trying to see things that are obvious, and yet that you hadn't seen.

Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem — i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing. Work on hard problems, driven mainly by curiosity, but have a second self watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies.

Give yourself some time. You have a lot of control over the rate at which you turn yours into a prepared mind, but you have less control over the stimuli that spark ideas when they hit it. If Bill Gates and Paul Allen had constrained themselves to come up with a startup idea in one month, what if they'd chosen a month before the Altair appeared? They probably would have worked on a less promising idea. Drew Houston did work on a less promising idea before Dropbox: an SAT prep startup. But Dropbox was a much better idea, both in the absolute sense and also as a match for his skills.

A good way to trick yourself into noticing ideas is to work on projects that seem like they'd be cool. If you do that, you'll naturally tend to build things that are missing. It wouldn't seem as interesting to build something that already existed.

(Tinder was created for people who are hard to find their partners and

it is really fun!)

Just as trying to think up startup ideas tends to produce bad ones, working on things that could be dismissed as "toys" often produces good ones. When something is described as a toy, that means it has everything an idea needs except being important. It's cool; users love it; it just doesn't matter. But if you're living in the future and you build something cool that users love, it may matter more than outsiders think. Microcomputers seemed like toys when Apple and Microsoft started working on them. I'm old enough to remember that era; the usual term for people with their own microcomputers was "hobbyists." BackRub seemed like an inconsequential science project. The Facebook was just a way for undergrads to stalk one another.

Lesson Learnt #4: Notice something that annoys you and work on it

* This article is adapted from "How to get startup ideas" of Paul Graham. See the original article here.

Author: Paul Graham.

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