Startup Ideas : How, why, when?

Startup is the buzzword nowadays. Malta is currently promoting startup businesses. 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. Melvyn Mangion shares his thoughts about this in this article.

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.

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 argues Melvyn Mangion? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. 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.

Think

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.

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. 

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 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.

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.

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. 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.

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. But you know the ideas are out there. This is not one of those problems where there might not be an answer. It’s impossibly unlikely that this is the exact moment when technological progress stops. You can be sure people are going to build things in the next few years that will make you think “What did I do before x?”

But if you’re looking for startup ideas you can sacrifice some of the efficiency of taking the status quo for granted and start to question things. Why is your inbox overflowing? Because you get a lot of email, or because it’s hard to get email out of your inbox? Why do you get so much email? What problems are people trying to solve by sending you email? Are there better ways to solve them? And why is it hard to get emails out of your inbox? Why do you keep emails around after you’ve read them? Is an inbox the optimal tool for that?

When you find the right sort of problem, you should probably be able to describe it as obvious, at least to you.

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.

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.

Conclusion

Finding startup ideas is a subtle business, and that’s why most people who try fail so miserably. It doesn’t work well simply to try to think of startup ideas. If you do that, you get bad ones that sound dangerously plausible. The best approach is more indirect: if you have the right sort of background, good startup ideas will seem obvious to you. But even then, not immediately. It takes time to come across situations where you notice something missing. And often these gaps won’t seem to be ideas for companies, just things that would be interesting to build. Which is why it’s good to have the time and the inclination to build things just because they’re interesting.

Live in the future and build what seems interesting. Strange as it sounds, that’s the real recipe.

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