Looking for a startup idea?

ideaWhile I have to admit to being skeptical of wannabe entrepreneurs who are out searching for a startup idea, there’s always that golden needle in the haystack: Jeff Bezos spending his cross country trip cold bloodily figuring out what type of business would be best suited for online commerce. (He decided on books for two reasons: one, the number of books in print so far exceeds the number of books any bricks and mortar store could possibly stock; and two, the publishing industry has relatively well-organized data, thanks to the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) system.

So when I stumbled across this post by Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator, How to Get Startup Ideas, I read it with interest – mainly because it was from Paul Graham, one of the best and most thoughtful writers in the entrepreneurship world.  If you aren’t familiar with Paul Graham and Y-Combinator stop right now and bone up on both, amongst the brightest stars in the startup constellation, though Paul has long since retired from Y-Combinator.

The post is very long and detailed but I highly recommend it for those of you in search of a startup idea. I’ll just highlight a few points here that may be of interest to all founders. The best quote is:

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.

This insight occurred to me back in the 1980s when I was working for Software Arts, as the company had its origin in Dan Bricklin’s frustration while a student at Harvard Business School. Every time a professor changed a single variable in a business problem students had to build their models all over again, calculator in hand. Dan, having worked on word processors at DEC, had a simple, but brilliant insight: why wasn’t there a word processor for numbers? Thus was born VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet and a prime mover in the success of Apple Computer. As I became familiar with other startups I noticed the pattern of programmers often solving their own problem and thus birthing a product of use to many others.

The other major point of Paul’s post is you don’t think up startup ideas – you notice them! The big problem with what Paul calls “made-up startup ideas” – is they tend to be something a large number of people want a small amount, not a small number of people need a large amount. As he writes, nearly all good startup ideas are of the second type, something people want right now!

Here’s great advice that smacks of Alan Kay’s The best way to predict the future is to invent it:  Live in the future, then build what’s missing. This brings us back to the difference between looking for an idea and noticing problems which you can solve with a yet to be built product.

Paul is firmly in the “learn by doing school” and seems to have little use for studying entrepreneurship:

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.

With all due respect to all those professors teaching entrepreneurship, I tend to agree with him. One of the reasons programmers are so good at startups rather than MBA students is that when they notice something missing they can quickly build something that fills in the gap. What does the holder of an MBA do when they notice something missing? Or do they even notice, rather than look for that billion dollar opportunity that’s every business school student’s dream. That’s not to say that a non-programmer can’t build a very successful startup, but any survey would show, I’m sure, that programmers are the vast majority of founders. Ben Silberman, founder of Pinterest, is a designer, which might be the second – and a very distant second – category of founder.

If you have read this far and aren’t a programmer, then you need to immerse yourself in the programming world and learn to do something really well that virtually no programmer/founder can’t do: namely sales. That’s my simple formula for a winning startup team: the programmer with the idea and the chops to build it and the sales person with the drive and chops to sell it. If you are not in neither category – such as I –  I wish you luck! And all the more reason to read Paul’s article very carefully. For as Paul writes: Live in the future and build what seems interesting. Strange as it sounds, that’s the real recipe.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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