in Projects, Programming, Technology

Noticing startup ideas

Paul Graham wrote an excellent post on noticing problems before thinking up solutions. This is something I’ve struggled with in the last ten years as I’ve transitioned from developer to entrepreneur. As a developer, it is natural to try and do cool things with the tools you know, as opposed to solving (often boring but hugely valuable) problems for lots of people. At this point, I’ve failed so spectacularly at this that it is embarrassing. So, let’s just say it is hard. It requires experimentation, failure, and persistence.

I wrote previously about my experience with Future Problem Solving and analyzing startup ideas. There are plenty of sources for this information like the lean startup method, and Steve Blank’s customer development framework. What was really useful about Paul Graham’s post was that it supplied some mental hacks. I’m a sucker for anything that gets you out of your normal mode of thought this way. So, here is a cheat sheet (with some paraphrasing) of PG’s key hacks.

  • The very best startup ideas [are] 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.
  • Watch out for feedback like “Yeah, maybe I could see using something like that.” They won’t. 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.
  • 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.
  • As you go, make your generalizable like Facebook (to other colleges and people) and Microsoft Basic (for other operating systems, and with other products)
  • 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.
  • In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig says: You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.
    • Live in the future, then build what’s missing (or seems interesting).
  • The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not “think up” but “notice.” At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences “organic” startup ideas.
  • 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.
  • The clash of domains is a particularly fruitful source of ideas. You’re doubly likely to find good problems in another domain: (a) the inhabitants of that domain are not as likely as software people to have already solved their problems with software, and (b) since you come into the new domain totally ignorant, you don’t even know what the status quo is to take it for granted.
  • If you have something that no competitor does and that some subset of users urgently need, you have a beachhead.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Schlep filter: If you let your mind wander a few blocks down the street to the messy, tedious ideas, you’ll find valuable ones just sitting there waiting to be implemented.
  • The unsexy filter is similar to the schlep filter, except it keeps you from working on problems you despise rather than ones you fear.
  • The place to start looking for ideas is things you need.
  • 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?
  • 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 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 (simulating the organic approach).
  • When startups consume incumbents, they usually start by serving some small but important market that the big players ignore.
  • Make something unsexy that people will pay you for.
  • It can be a good trick to look companies 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?

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