My series of notes on Y Combinator’s Startup Library:
Takeaway: The best way to generate startup ideas is to work on cool hacks with your friends.
The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea.
The initial idea is just a starting point — not a blueprint, but a question. Instead of saying that your idea is to make a collaborative, web-based spreadsheet, say: could one make a collaborative, web-based spreadsheet?
There’s a real difference, because an assertion provokes objections in a way a question doesn’t. A question doesn’t seem so challenging. It becomes: let’s try making a web-based spreadsheet and see how far we get.
You wouldn’t have thought of something like that except by implementing your way toward it.
Treating a startup idea as a question changes what you’re looking for. If an idea is a blueprint, it has to be right. but if it’s a question, it can be wrong, so long as it’s wrong in a way that leads to more ideas.
To generate such questions you need two things: to be familiar with promising new technologies, and to have the right kind of friends.
A good rule of thumb was to stay upwind — to work on things that maximize your future options.
Ideas get developed in the process of explaining them to the right kind of person. You need that resistance, just as a carver needs the resistance of the wood.
Taking a shower is like a form of meditation. You’re alert, but there’s nothing to distract you. It’s in a situation like this, where your mind is free to roam, that it bumps into new ideas.
If new ideas arise like doodles, this would explain why you have to work at something for a while before you have any. It’s not just that you can’t judge ideas till you’re an expert in a field. You won’t even generate ideas, because you won’t have any habits of mind to invoke.
I find that to have good ideas I need to be working on some problem. You can’t start with randomness. You have to start with a problem, then let your mind wander just far enough for new ideas to form.
Let me repeat that recipe: finding the problem intolerable and feeling it must be possible to solve it. Simple as it seems, that’s the recipe for a lot of startup ideas.
Startup ideas are ideas for companies, and companies have to make money. And the way to make money is to make something people want.
Wealth is defined democratically.
One way to make something people want is to look at stuff people use now that’s broken.
Another classic way to make something people want is to take a luxury and make it into a commodity.
One of the most useful mental habits I know I learned from Michael Rabin: that the best way to solve a problem is often to redefine it. Redefining the problem is a particularly juicy heuristic when you have competitors, because it’s so hard for rigid-minded people to follow.
Making things cheaper is actually a subset of a more general technique: making things easier to use.
Simplicity takes effort — genius, even.
If you want to start a startup, you can take almost any existing technology produced by a big company, and assume you could build something way easier to use.
Design for Exit
Another source of ideas: look at big companies, think what they should be doing, and do it yourself. Just be sure to make something multiple acquirers will want. Dont fix Windows, because the only potential acquirer is Microsoft, and when there’s only one acquirer, they don’t have to hurry.
The Woz Route
The most productive way to generate startup ideas is also the most unlikely-sounding: by accident.
The rather surprising conclusion is that the best way to generate startup ideas is to do what hackers do for fun: cook up amusing hacks with your friends.