How to get startup ideas – Paul Graham

Tue, 02 Jul 2013 23:05:44 GMT

November 2012

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.

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.

I made it myself. In 1995 I started a company to put art galleries online. But galleries didn’t want to be online. It’s not how the art business works. So why did I spend 6 months working on this stupid idea? Because I didn’t pay attention to users.* I invented a model of the world that didn’t correspond to reality, and worked from that. I didn’t notice my model was wrong until I tried to convince users to pay for what we’d built.* Even then I took embarrassingly long to catch on. I was attached to my model of the world, and I’d spent a lot of time on the software. They had to want it!

Why do so many founders build things no one wants? 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.

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. [1] 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.”

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.

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.

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. [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. That’s probably as much as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg knew at first.

Occasionally it’s obvious from the beginning when there’s a path out of the initial niche. And sometimes I can see a path that’s not immediately obvious; that’s one of our specialties at YC. But there are limits to how well this can be done, no matter how much experience you have. 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.

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. [4]

You don’t have to learn programming to be at the leading edge of a domain that’s changing fast. Other domains change fast. But while learning to hack is not necessary, it is for the forseeable future sufficient. As Marc Andreessen put it, software is eating the world, and this trend has decades left to run.

Knowing how to hack also means that when you have ideas, you’ll be able to implement them. That’s not absolutely necessary (Jeff Bezos couldn’t) but it’s an advantage. It’s a big advantage, when you’re considering an idea like putting a college facebook online, if instead of merely thinking “That’s an interesting idea,” you can think instead “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll try building an initial version tonight.” It’s even better when you’re both a programmer and the target user, because then the cycle of generating new versions and testing them on users can happen inside one head.

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.

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?

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 curiousity, but have a second self watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies.* [6]

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.*

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. Especially since you won’t even really learn about it, any more than you’d learn about sex in a class. All you’ll learn is the words for things.

The clash of domains is a particularly fruitful source of ideas. If you know a lot about programming and you start learning about some other field, you’ll probably see problems that software could solve. In fact, 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.

So if you’re a CS 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.* [8]

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. [9]

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.

Beware of research. If an undergrad writes something all his friends start using, it’s quite likely to represent a good startup idea. Whereas a PhD dissertation is extremely unlikely to.*For some reason, the more a project has to count as research, the less likely it is to be something that could be turned into a startup.* [10] I think the reason is that the subset of ideas that count as research is so narrow that it’s unlikely that a project that satisfied that constraint would also satisfy the orthogonal constraint of solving users’ problems. Whereas when students (or professors) build something as a side-project, they automatically gravitate toward solving users’ problems—perhaps even with an additional energy that comes from being freed from the constraints of research.

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. [11]

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.

Err on the side of doing things where you’ll face competitors. Inexperienced founders usually give competitors more credit than they deserve.*Whether you succeed depends far more on you than on your competitors. So better a good idea with competitors than a bad one without.*

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). [12]

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.

Most programmers wish they could start a startup by just writing some brilliant code, pushing it to a server, and having users pay them lots of money. They’d prefer not to deal with tedious problems or get involved in messy ways with the real world. Which is a reasonable preference, because such things slow you down. But this preference is so widespread that the space of convenient startup ideas has been stripped pretty clean. 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 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.

Recipes

While the best way to discover startup ideas is to become the sort of person who has them and then build whatever interests you, sometimes you don’t have that luxury. Sometimes you need an idea now. For example, 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. Your ideas about chat apps are just as bad, but you’re giving yourself a Dunning-Kruger pass in that domain.

The place to start looking for ideas is things you need. There must be things you need. [14]

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. [15]

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?

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.

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. [17]

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?

Organic

But talking about looking explicitly for waves makes it clear that such recipes are plan B for getting startup ideas. Looking for waves is essentially a way to simulate the organic method. If you’re at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you don’t have to look for waves; you are the wave.

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. (所以需要有时间和精力不慌不忙的跟玩儿似的干!)*

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

总的来说,技术只是工具是手段,抓准需求才是核心。