Startup Academy 101: How to Get Startup Ideas - Part 2

Author: Paul Graham


* Part 1 can be found here: https://www.vietchallenge.org/post/startup-academy-101-how-to-get-startup-ideas-part-1


5. School

That's what I'd advise college students to do, rather than trying to learn about "entrepreneurship." "Entrepreneurship" is something you learn best by doing it. The examples of the most successful founders make that clear. What you should be spending your time on in college is ratcheting yourself into the future. College is an incomparable opportunity to do that. What a waste to sacrifice an opportunity to solve the hard part of starting a startup — becoming the sort of person who can have organic startup ideas — by spending time learning about the easy part.


So if you're a Computer Science major and you want to start a startup, instead of taking a class on entrepreneurship you're better off taking a class on, say, genetics. Or better still, go work for a biotech company. CS majors normally get summer jobs at computer hardware or software companies. But if you want to find startup ideas, you might do better to get a summer job in some unrelated field.


Or don't take any extra classes, and just build things. It's no coincidence that Microsoft and Facebook both got started in January. At Harvard that is (or was) Reading Period, when students have no classes to attend because they're supposed to be studying for finals.

(In January 1975, Bill Gates created the first version of Altair while in college)


But don't feel like you have to build things that will become startups. That's premature optimization. Just build things. Preferably with other students. It's not just the classes that make a university such a good place to crank oneself into the future. You're also surrounded by other people trying to do the same thing. If you work together with them on projects, you'll end up producing not just organic ideas, but organic ideas with organic founding teams — and that, empirically, is the best combination.


Lesson Learnt #5: Learning by doing it. Jump into an unrelated field and start doing something


6. Competition

Because a good idea should seem obvious, when you have one you'll tend to feel that you're late. Don't let that deter you. Worrying that you're late is one of the signs of a good idea. Ten minutes of searching the web will usually settle the question. Even if you find someone else working on the same thing, you're probably not too late. It's exceptionally rare for startups to be killed by competitors — so rare that you can almost discount the possibility. So unless you discover a competitor with the sort of lock-in that would prevent users from choosing you, don't discard the idea.


If you're uncertain, ask users. The question of whether you're too late is subsumed by the question of whether anyone urgently needs what you plan to make. If you have something that no competitor does and that some subset of users urgently need, you have a beachhead (a strong advantage).


The question then is whether that beachhead is big enough. Or more importantly, who's in it: if the beachhead consists of people doing something lots more people will be doing in the future, then it's probably big enough no matter how small it is. For example, if you're building something differentiated from competitors by the fact that it works on phones, but it only works on the newest phones, that's probably a big enough beachhead.


You don't need to worry about entering a "crowded market" so long as you have a thesis about what everyone else in it is overlooking. In fact that's a very promising starting point. Google was that type of idea. Your thesis has to be more precise than "we're going to make an x that doesn't suck" though. You have to be able to phrase it in terms of something the incumbents are overlooking. Best of all is when you can say that they didn't have the courage of their convictions, and that your plan is what they'd have done if they'd followed through on their own insights. Google was that type of idea too. The search engines that preceded them shied away from the most radical implications of what they were doing — particularly that the better a job they did, the faster users would leave.


(There are whole bunch of dating apps on the market but the market is huge for a lot of players. Don't worry too much about competitors)


A crowded market is actually a good sign, because it means both that there's demand and that none of the existing solutions are good enough. A startup can't hope to enter a market that's obviously big and yet in which they have no competitors. So any startup that succeeds is either going to be entering a market with existing competitors, but armed with some secret weapon that will get them all the users (like Google), or entering a market that looks small but which will turn out to be big (like Microsoft)


Lesson Learnt #6: Don't worry too much about competitors. The market is huge enough for everyone.


7. Filters

There are two more filters you'll need to turn off if you want to notice startup ideas: the unsexy filter and the schlep filter. (*schlep: a slow and difficult journey)


The schlep filter is so dangerous that I wrote a separate essay about the condition it induces, which I called schlep blindness. I gave Stripe as an example of a startup that benefited from turning off this filter, and a pretty striking example it is. Thousands of programmers were in a position to see this idea; thousands of programmers knew how painful it was to process payments before Stripe. But when they looked for startup ideas they didn't see this one, because unconsciously they shrank from having to deal with payments. And dealing with payments is a schlep for Stripe, but not an intolerable one. In fact they might have had net less pain; because the fear of dealing with payments kept most people away from this idea, Stripe has had comparatively smooth sailing in other areas that are sometimes painful, like user acquisition. They didn't have to try very hard to make themselves heard by users, because users were desperately waiting for what they were building.

(Stripe co-founders, Patrick and John Collison)


The unsexy filter is similar to the schlep filter, except it keeps you from working on problems you despise rather than ones you fear. We overcame this one to work on Viaweb. There were interesting things about the architecture of our software, but we weren't interested in e-commerce per se. We could see the problem was one that needed to be solved though.


Turning off the schlep filter is more important than turning off the unsexy filter, because the schlep filter is more likely to be an illusion. And even to the degree it isn't, it's a worse form of self-indulgence. Starting a successful startup is going to be fairly laborious no matter what. Even if the product doesn't entail a lot of schleps, you'll still have plenty dealing with investors, hiring and firing people, and so on. So if there's some idea you think would be cool but you're kept away from by fear of the schleps involved, don't worry: any sufficiently good idea will have as many.


The unsexy filter, while still a source of error, is not as entirely useless as the schlep filter. If you're at the leading edge of a field that's changing rapidly, your ideas about what's sexy will be somewhat correlated with what's valuable in practice. Particularly as you get older and more experienced. Plus if you find an idea sexy, you'll work on it more enthusiastically.


Lesson Learnt #7:

Schlep Filter: a promising idea actually involves a lot of difficulties. Don't be afraid of that!

Unsexy filter: Not every idea is as sexy as a Tesla electric car but it is needed to be solved though.


8. Recipes

Now, comes to the question: what if you're working on a startup and your initial idea turns out to be bad?


For the rest of this essay I'll talk about tricks for coming up with startup ideas on demand. Although empirically you're better off using the organic strategy, you could succeed this way. You just have to be more disciplined. When you use the organic method, you don't even notice an idea unless it's evidence that something is truly missing. But when you make a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, you have to replace this natural constraint with self-discipline. You'll see a lot more ideas, most of them bad, so you need to be able to filter them.


When searching for ideas, look in areas where you have some expertise. If you're a database expert, don't build a chat app for teenagers (unless you're also a teenager). Maybe it's a good idea, but you can't trust your judgment about that, so ignore it. There have to be other ideas that involve databases, and whose quality you can judge. Do you find it hard to come up with good ideas involving databases? That's because your expertise raises your standards.


The place to start looking for ideas is things you need. There must be things you need. More generally, try asking yourself whether there's something unusual about you that makes your needs different from most other people's. You're probably not the only one. It's especially good if you're different in a way people will increasingly be.


If you're changing ideas, one unusual thing about you is the idea you'd previously been working on. Did you discover any needs while working on it? Several well-known startups began this way. Hotmail began as something its founders wrote to talk about their previous startup idea while they were working at their day jobs.


A particularly promising way to be unusual is to be young. Some of the most valuable new ideas take root first among people in their teens and early twenties. And while young founders are at a disadvantage in some respects, they're the only ones who really understand their peers. It would have been very hard for someone who wasn't a college student to start Facebook. So if you're a young founder (under 23 say), are there things you and your friends would like to do that current technology won't let you?


(Mark Zuckerberg and the first Facebook team)


The next best thing to an unmet need of your own is an unmet need of someone else. Try talking to everyone you can about the gaps they find in the world. What's missing? What would they like to do that they can't? What's tedious or annoying, particularly in their work? Let the conversation get general; don't be trying too hard to find startup ideas. You're just looking for something to spark a thought. Maybe you'll notice a problem they didn't consciously realize they had, because you know how to solve it.


One way to ensure you do a good job solving other people's problems is to make them your own. When Rajat Suri of E la Carte decided to write software for restaurants, he got a job as a waiter to learn how restaurants worked. That may seem like taking things to extremes, but startups are extreme. We love it when founders do such things.


In fact, one strategy I recommend to people who need a new idea is not merely to turn off their schlep and unsexy filters, but to seek out ideas that are unsexy or involve schleps. Don't try to start Twitter. Those ideas are so rare that you can't find them by looking for them. Make something unsexy that people will pay you for.


A good trick for bypassing the schlep and to some extent the unsexy filter is to ask what you wish someone else would build, so that you could use it. What would you pay for right now?


Since startups often garbage-collect broken companies and industries, it can be a good trick to look for those that are dying, or deserve to, and try to imagine what kind of company would profit from their demise. For example, journalism is in free fall at the moment. But there may still be money to be made from something like journalism. What sort of company might cause people in the future to say "this replaced journalism" on some axis?


But imagine asking that in the future, not now. When one company or industry replaces another, it usually comes in from the side. So don't look for a replacement for x; look for something that people will later say turned out to be a replacement for x. And be imaginative about the axis along which the replacement occurs. Traditional journalism, for example, is a way for readers to get information and to kill time, a way for writers to make money and to get attention, and a vehicle for several different types of advertising. It could be replaced on any of these axes (it has already started to be on most).


When startups consume incumbents, they usually start by serving some small but important market that the big players ignore. It's particularly good if there's an admixture of disdain in the big players' attitude, because that often misleads them. For example, after Steve Wozniak built the computer that became the Apple I, he felt obliged to give his then-employer Hewlett-Packard the option to produce it. Fortunately for him, they turned it down, and one of the reasons they did was that it used a TV for a monitor, which seemed intolerably déclassé to a high-end hardware company like HP was at the time.


Are there groups of scruffy but sophisticated users like the early microcomputer "hobbyists" that are currently being ignored by the big players? A startup with its sights set on bigger things can often capture a small market easily by expending an effort that wouldn't be justified by that market alone.


Similarly, since the most successful startups generally ride some wave bigger than themselves, it could be a good trick to look for waves and ask how one could benefit from them. The prices of gene sequencing and 3D printing are both experiencing Moore's Law-like declines. What new things will we be able to do in the new world we'll have in a few years? What are we unconsciously ruling out as impossible that will soon be possible?


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


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