The Bizarre World of Startup Ideas

Stuff that most people get mostly wrong about startup ideas, brought to you in a bizarre Q&A format.


What’s the #1 thing people get wrong about startup ideas?


What a startup idea is.


A startup idea is not a solution or a cool thing that came to you in a dream. It is a problem. A big ugly problem that an actual person desperately wants to go away.


Focusing on problems is unnatural. When I didn’t, I made my team waste 2 years solving the wrong one.


Is my startup idea any good?


Only if it gets you to drop everything and start working on it today.


The overwhelming majority of startups never got started. Look for an idea that you cannot stop yourself from bringing to life.


What’s the right way to think about a startup idea?


Like a pyramid: the foundation is a market, the middle layer is a problem, and on top is a solution.


Each layer requires special treatment:

  • Market - treat your market like an enthusiast. Choose a market that you’re passionate about and want to immerse yourself in for the next 20 years

  • Problem - treat the problem like a detective. Is it real? Is it important? Who cares about it? Why is it not solved yet? Obsess with uncovering every tiny detail about it

  • Solution - treat it like a scientist. Try anything, throw solutions on the wall and see what sticks. Have no love for any solution, only for the truth


How do I find a good startup idea?


I recently changed my mind about this.


There is no methodology or process for finding startup ideas. The only thing that matters is curiosity.


So, read online, read offline, speak to smart people, speak to stupid people, go observe someone at their job for an entire week, listen to 50 podcasts about a weird thing you’re interested in, read obscure scientific papers, observe, listen, go to Tokyo and learn everything about it, take in everything around you.


Only genuine curiosity can lead you to world-changing ideas.


How do I know if my startup idea has potential?


The good news is that bad ideas are easy to disqualify, and most ideas are bad: the market is tiny, the problem is not real, your solution is a marginal improvement, or the entire thing doesn’t excite you enough.


The bad news is that great ideas can’t be validated. You’ll know for sure only a few good years in.


Good luck.


Is market size important?


Only to the extent that it can support your personal ambitions.


You can build a respectable business in any market. You don’t have to aim for a $1B business.


How can I tell if my idea is VC-fundable?


This question will only lead you astray.


Here’s a conversation I had with one of the best investors in the world:

  • Me: “what would you want to see to invest in our A-round?”

  • Investor: “you doing what’s right for your business and not what investors tell you”

What’s right for your business right now is to find a real problem that you can’t stop yourself from solving. Don't let investors confuse you quite yet.


Is timing important?


The biggest luck factor in startups is timing.


Pets.com and Webvan are two of many startups that failed by doing the right thing too early. 20 years later their successors are worth billions.


But timing is a future prediction, and you can’t predict the future. Nobody knows if the trend you’re riding is 1% from the beginning or the end. Only time will tell.


So while important, all you can do is form a thesis of why your timing is good and hope for the best. Then track your thesis over time and adapt.


Is it necessary to have a vision?


Technically no, but practically yes. Here’s why:

  • It gives you a bigger purpose and meaning which you’re going to need

  • It makes selling to employees, investors, and customers infinitely easier

  • It allows you to start small. After all, this is only the first step of a big vision

Let the vision come from within. Ask yourself “why should I dedicate my best years to this?”


What are other common mistakes when it comes to startup ideas?


Little saddens me more than an entrepreneur who spent years of their life pursuing an idea they were not passionate about. It’s a story that always ends poorly, and one that I hear too frequently.


Other common mistakes are: falling in love with your solution, iterating too slowly, and talking instead of doing.


How do I get started?

  • Drop everything including reading this article

  • Pick a market that is interesting for you

  • Learn anything and everything about it


What if no one likes my startup idea?


At the moment of inception, many good ideas seem idiotic to most people.


The founders of Airbnb were laughed at for years.


My idea seems too hard, should I find an easier one?


One of many startup paradoxes is that bigger, more challenging ideas are more likely to succeed. The more ambitious you are, the smarter the people you’ll get on your side.


So yea, if your idea seems hard, look for a harder one.


Is my idea too crazy?


Your idea is not too crazy even if it’s very ambitious, big, and scary.


But there is one thing that makes an idea too crazy and that is if it requires multiple miracles to succeed. Elad Gil’s article on the topic is worth a read.


Generally speaking, the best startup ideas require exactly one miracle to succeed.


Should I care about competition?


If your problem exists in the world then by definition it is not solved. This is the thing to focus on.


With two caveats:

  • If there’s absolutely zero competition then good chance that the problem is a figment of your imagination

  • If competition is all over the place then good chance that the future you want to create is happening with or without you. In this case, you won’t be adding value, just adding competition


How important is founder-market fit?


Founder-market fit is overrated.


Founder market fit is the idea that a founder should be the best person in the world to solve the problem by having 1) experience with the problem, 2) worked in the market, 3) relevant connections, and 4) a moving personal story that leads them to this particular idea.


The only aspect of founder-market fit that matters is obsession. Over time, sheer obsession will compensate for any deficits in experience, knowledge, or connections.


When should I go all-in on my idea?


When your gut tells you to. But 3 gut calibrations are necessary:

  • The vast majority of people postpone going all-in indefinitely

  • You can’t make much real progress on your idea if it’s a side hustle

  • Going all-in will always be as scary as hell

So err on the side of following your gut while being a bit reckless.


I don’t know how I’ll make money, is that a problem?


A startup is a business and a business eventually needs to make mountains of money. Hence:

  • It is best to know how you’ll be making money in the short term

  • It is okay to not make money right away but have a proven thesis of how you’ll make money later on

  • It is reckless to brush off this question


How do I balance deep belief in my idea with not being delusional?


Carefully.


This is one of the hardest things in startups and why the right co-founders and advisors are invaluable.


This phase is so stressful, I just want to get executing!


This is one of the best phases of startups. No external pressure, no employees, no investors, no commitments. Just you and your wildest dreams.


Enjoy it while it lasts.


How long does it take to find a good startup idea?


How long does it take to find the love of your life?