Paul Graham on good startup ideas

This weekend I read an uncannily familiar essay by Paul Graham called “How to Get Startup Ideas.” What was uncanny about the essay was that it seemed–as all good voices do–as if he were saying more clearly the sorts of things I’d come to independently. Also uncanny because I’ve never had more than half a foot in the startup world. I seemed to be reading along with Graham. In what follows, I’d like to pick out and briefly summarize the points about good startup ideas that seemed to me most relevant.

1. The Starting Point. A good startup idea is neither overly intellectualized nor some drummed-up solution in search of a pseudo-problem. Rather, it is some problem that is mine, something I would like to see solved or figured out so that I can use it. There is, in other words, a personal dimension to the problem that, in my philosophy practice, I have spoken of in terms of ‘being alive to…’ or ‘being fraught about…’

2. The Question. A good startup idea answers the question: “What’s missing and urgently needed?” It could be that there is nothing important missing in this quarter, so that idea would be no good. Or–and this is crucial–something could be missing–pseudo-missing, as it were–but not be urgently needed. Paul Graham sees a lot of startup ideas founder on the rocks of the not urgently needed but sorta liked. He jokes,

The danger of an idea like this [a social network for avid pet owners] 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.

Not long after arriving in New York, I worked for a startup that fit this description to the T. I left the startup after 6 months.

3. The Well. So, a good startup idea can answer the question of what’s really missing and urgently needed. The Well is a metaphor Graham employs to answer the question–for whom? The idea, if it has any chance of ultimately being scalable, should begin with a small group of especially committed users–individuals whose lives are profoundly impacted by the existence of this idea, platform, or tool. Initially, the idea should be deep (i.e., attract a devoted group of users) but not broad (i.e., not, in its first breaths, find a large market). If the idea is going to spread, then it will have to spread from the ‘local need’ to the ‘global use.’

4. DIY Overnight. If the idea is dreamt up on Monday night, it should be able to be brought into existence by Tuesday morning. In other words, one shouldn’t have to raise lots of capital, hire specialists in various fields, and set up an elaborate infrastructure. (The first version of Udacity involved just 2 guys teaching 100,000 people AI.) Instead, one should be able to do most things oneself. There’s a joke my friends Dougald Hine and Charlie Davies like to tell. Figure out how much money it would take you to make your idea a reality and then do it tomorrow without a budget.

5. Education. Graham thinks that getting an education in entrepreneurship is a waste of time. I think so too. Over the past couple years, I’ve come across a number of people who do not have substantive knowledge in art and science, have made the mistake of becoming formalists (i.e., learning methods and techniques without the substance and content that make good thinking possible), and who are passionate about startups. They don’t tend to have good ideas. The trouble is that you get these people who end of rehashing or replicating old ideas in slightly different forms: another local pickler, another coffee shop, another free school, another social media site… The key, it seems to me, is to have become learned in particular object domains and, by means of this education, to have become tuned into what’s missing all the while rejecting common sense. If people keep saying that “This is the way we do [or have done] things,” then you’ll want to think, “Yes, but no doubt things can be done (better) otherwise.” Being well-read and having experimented a lot in life will make startup ideas–in Graham’s words–feel “organic.”

Afterward. For a while, I’ve thought that a good startup idea is rather like a bad Hegelian joke. Going forward (in the Phenomenology of Spirit), it’s a gamble. In retrospect, it was an inevitability.

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