By: Jessica Stillman
At Y Combinator, Paul Graham has seen some of the best start-up ideas of the past few years. Now he shares where they usually come from.
You’re burning to do a start-up and think you have what it takes to succeed. Only problem: First, you need a great idea.
As a co-founder of wildly successful incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham has had a hand in shaping some of the best start-up ideas of the past few years. Now, helpfully, he has shed his insights on where they usually come from.
If you are the person described in the first paragraph, seriously, read it in full. But if you need to be convinced, here’s the gist: “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.”
Those are the first couple of sentences of Graham’s post, so there’s no confusion about his essential advice. But he goes into a lot more detail for those looking for more specifics, offering suggestions such as:
Go for Depth, Not Breadth
To avoid bad but vaguely plausible start-up ideas–what the Y Combinator team calls sitcom ideas, i.e., the kind of ideas TV writers would make up if a character on a show had a start-up–choose something that some people want a lot rather than something lots of people might sort of want a little. Graham writes:
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.
Live in the Future
Being at the leading edge of a field makes you more able to recognize good ideas. “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,” he writes.
“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.” Getting to the edge of a field may take a year rather than a weekend, but “disappointing though it may be, this is the truth,” concludes Graham.
Turn Off the Filters
Once you know what sort of need you’re looking for (passionately desired by a few) and have the requisite expertise, what else can you do? Stop thinking so much. Or as Graham puts it, don’t screen out ideas based on your guesstimate of their viability early in the process.
“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,” he writes.