There is no formula for coming up with startup ideas. It cannot be prescribed; however, there are places and people where lightning has struck more than once. I’ve looked into advice coming from Silicon Valley, and Mr. Paul Graham’s is the only advice I haven’t been able to forget.
It’s the opposite of Buzzfeed and mainstream journalism, because it is nuanced and intellectually honest. Although, it’s the type of advice that is frustrating to hear because it leaves so much to be desired. This makes me respect it all the more.
The advice comes from one of the most qualified to give it. Paul succeeded as a tech entrepreneur in the 90’s, and founded the renowned Y-Combinator where it was his job to predict successful seed stage startups. AirBnb, Stripe, Dropbox, Twitch are just several billion dollar companies to have resulted.
So here it is. This is the startup advice I can’t forget.
Get to the leading edge
Paul starts off with “become the kind of the person to have good startup ideas.” And one way you might do this is to get to the leading edge of a field, either as a user or as a contributor to the field.
This is what he calls “living in the future”. By definition, the present has everything it couldn’t live without, because here we all are. However, there are still many things missing in the future. So, to put it all together, “live in the future, and build what’s missing.”
He gives the example of getting to a leading edge in programming, which was apparently ‘mobile apps’ at the time of his writing in 2012. Here are the first several ideas that pop into my head while writing in 2023:
- DAOs – the future of internet communities
- LLMs – the future of user interfaces
- NFTs – the future of digital property & ownership
- DNA – the future of medicine
Notice, not think
His next piece of advice is to notice, not think. When people try to “think up” ideas they often only come up with plausible-sounding ideas, all of which aren’t needed in reality. When you’re going about your life in the future, the things that are missing will naturally perturb you. So you notice startup ideas, rather than think of them. Even better if you say to yourself: “I wish someone would build this for me” or “I would buy that if it existed”. This leads into the next piece of advice.
You are the target
You can be more sure you’re on the right track when you yourself are a target user. This way you can confirm for yourself that you’re solving a real problem, and not just making one up.
Adding everything together so far we have “live in the future, and notice and build what is missing for you.”
Learn to hack
An extra bonus, on top of being a target user, is to build the product yourself. This overlaps with Sam Altman’s advice to non-technical founders, learn to hack. If you get to the point where you can build (at least) a Version 1, now you can have ideas and execute on them in the same day.
How many good ideas have died because the person who had the idea didn’t know the next step to take? This is really about speeding up, and unblocking, the product development cycle. When you’re a target user and a hacker this loop happens inside a single mind: idea -> build -> evaluate.
The final piece of advice is something I have a lot of experience with from product design, and something I wholeheartedly agree with. Paul says that all good startups started by targeting a specific group of users who really needed something. This overlaps with what Steve Blank calls earlyvangelists.
On almost every product I’ve ever worked on, the user, and thus, the product requirements, have been vague. I think this is because there is a tendency to want to solve the problems of many people, rather than solve the problems of few people.
No one gets excited about solving a problem for 10 people, even if they love you for it, but I think we can all agree this is a better starting point than trying to solve a problem for 1M people, none of whom end up using the product.
This makes me think of the Carl Jung quote: “Modern man can’t see God because he doesn’t look low enough.” Except in our case, it would be “the team never finds product-market fit, because it doesn’t start small enough.”
I hope to forget all this advice. Maybe then I’ll be able to notice and not think. Maybe then I’ll be the kind of person who has good startup ideas.