Startup ideas 101
Lots of entrepreneurs think the idea is the most important part of the startup. But if you look at all the startup content out there, you see everyone saying that ideas have no value. So why do people still think that being an entrepreneur is all about thinking up ideas?
I think it comes down to the fact that people don’t understand just how dynamic the process of getting ideas is. An idea isn’t just something that comes to you in some “Eureka!” moment. You aren’t just walking along in a garden and suddenly, BAM! You get the idea that will change the world. Pop culture doesn’t help either, since it’s always giving us this image of the entrepreneur who has an idea and transforms it into a success almost overnight.
The reality is that most people don’t realize how valuable their idea is until it becomes something really big. Never forget the story about how the founders of Google came *this close* to selling Google to Yahoo for $1M. And also don’t forget that Yahoo said, “No, that’s too much.”
Google, one of the largest companies that the world has ever seen, was founded by two guys who didn’t understand how massive it could become.
So getting an idea for a startup is a dynamic process, in the sense that you have to keep confronting your vision of the world with reality. Reality is what will keep giving you constant feedback.
But let’s not stop there. There are other issues with how most people think about getting startup ideas. One is the fact that you don’t get one great idea and that’s it. Ideas are alive, just like companies. When you launch a project and work on it, you put it into the world, the world gives you feedback, and then there will be new ideas that help you shape the company. The key there is how you listen to and manage that feedback.
Another thing people get wrong is thinking that the future is a passive process. The future doesn’t exist yet, and most of the things we have around us came into being thanks to someone at some point applying real force.
That’s why instead of talking about ideas, we should be talking about decisions. A company is not about one giant decision. Building a company is about making thousands and thousands of decisions and hoping that each one takes you closer to your vision.
It means the most important thing is to test any idea you have as soon as possible. Don’t worry about competition — there are very, very few startups in markets where competition really matters. It takes such a long time before you’re big enough for competition to have an impact, which means lots of startups die not because of competition, but because of mistakes they make because they’re watching what the competition is doing. Looking at your competition as startup is like looking at someone’s Instagram and thinking that’s what their life is really like.
As you test ideas, remember that every startup can exist, it’s a question of how difficult they are to build. If your idea is obvious and linked to an existing market, it’s easier. If your idea isn’t obvious and the market doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean the startup can’t work, it just means that the amount of effort and the incredible execution required could mean that it doesn’t make sense to spend your time that way.
That’s why one of the good ways to choose an idea is by starting with something you yourself want. If you solve a problem for yourself, and there are enough of *you* in the world, then your startup can be a success.
The real question is how honest you are with yourself — way too many entrepreneurs lie to themselves. They lie to themselves about the quality they want, they lie to themselves about whether or not they’re the right person to build it, they lie to themselves about whether they’re ready to pay the price that it’s going to take to build what they have in mind.
Simple example: I’ve had so many people come to me and say, “Oh, I have this idea, I’m looking for a developer now.”
“Ok, do you have money to pay them?”
“No, I don’t have any money.”
“Ok, are you ready to give that person a significant portion of your company?”
“No, I mean, it’s my idea!”
And that’s how it always goes with people who haven’t understood that the idea doesn’t have value, only the execution has value.
Think about it this way: If I get a room of 100 people together and give them the recipe and ingredients to make a chocolate cake, there’s one person who’s going to make a chocolate cake that’s better than all the others. And if I had 20 rooms of people like that, all around the world, and I took all the winners and put them together in a room, and did the same thing again, someone’s going to have the best cake. That’s the reality in startups. It’s not a question of whether I choose to make a chocolate cake, or a tiramisu, or a pavlova — that’s just the idea. It’s all about the execution.
There’s no link between the idea and what you can build. There is a link between your market and the success you can have. Some markets are easier than others. If you want to build an airline, it’s going to be harder than building a breakfast cereal brand. But that’s not the question — the question is who are you, and how are you linked to what you’re building?
Most people don’t realize what it truly means to execute. They don’t realize that overnight successes don’t exist, that the work supporting what they see has been going on for years, even before the company was ever founded.
Take The Family, for example. We just had our 6th birthday, but that’s not when The Family started, because what we have now isn’t the first iteration of the idea that I’ve had. Back in high school, I tried to gather some people around me and for them to launch startups, telling them that if they give me 25% of their company, I’d help them. Big failure.
Then, years ago, I had a place in Paris, and I’d let people launching startups stay there, I’d cook food, and they’d give me 10% of the company. Big failure. I did the same thing in California, taking in international founders… that time I didn’t take any equity, I was tired of trying to do that. But obviously that’s not viable long-term either.
And then I started The Family with Alice and Nicolas. From the outside, it might look like I woke up one day and had the idea for The Family. But it didn’t happen like that. (Plus, I was sure that The Family wouldn’t work, since every time I tried it, it didn’t work.) But what the three of us built was unique and different, and it came out of everything we had already tried and worked on before. Those experiences let us have an idea of something that was true, a kind of secret: that anyone can become an entrepreneur.
And in startup ideas, finding out a secret, that’s a huge thing. Peter Thiel talks about this, how a secret isn’t something confidential; instead, a secret is something that you know, it’s something that is true, and it’s something that no one around you realizes.
When no one else realizes that your secret is true, it can be hard. But you don’t need their approval to launch. What you need to do is identify your market and make progress with them. When we launched The Family, we didn’t try to convince everyone we were right. We just wanted to convince 10 entrepreneurs to give us equity. When we had done that, we wanted to convince 100, and then 500, and so on. We didn’t waste any time trying to convince anyone who didn’t understand and agree with us already. It’s way too hard to change people’s minds.
That’s why entrepreneurs can’t waste time on talking, you have to be on the side of doing. Stop trying to convince people you’re right, and start doing a great job for users who love your product. Keep finding more and more of them.
By definition a startup is impossible. If it was easy, everyone would have already done it, the problem would already be solved. That’s why the whole key isn’t the idea — it’s the joining of the idea with founders who are able to do, who turn something from impossible into reality. People don’t talk enough about how important founder-idea fit is.
So here’s some concrete advice about startup ideas: Stop thinking about what you want to do, and start thinking about who you want to do it with. If you really answer honestly, that will reduce the number of ideas you could possibly work on.
It’s kind of like with babies — you don’t pick the baby you want, you pick the person you want to have a baby with. You don’t say, “Oh, I want a baby with green eyes,” and then figure out whose genetics will give you that baby. You say, “I want to be with this person, and I want to have a baby with them.” And thank god, it’d be so weird if you did it the other way around. Looking at yourself, understanding yourself, understanding your cofounder, is so much more important than choosing what to do. What you’re doing is going to change, but the people you do it with don’t change.
Once you have all that, the idea can become pretty obvious. I’m with these people that I love, and we all want to do X. As you start doing things, the idea will evolve. It’ll get more complicated. You can’t imagine how complicated it will get. The best companies at The Family all started like that, with entrepreneurs doing something that they didn’t realize was impossible, and then solving problems as they go along. It’s normal — at the beginning, you don’t see the whole mountain you’ve got to climb, you just see the little step that’s right in front of you. As you keep going, you get stronger, you have more resources, a bigger team, you can start to handle more complexity. And people on the outside will still think that you just woke up one day and turned an idea into an overnight success.
When it comes to ideas, don’t have too much faith in yourself. You don’t have superpowers, your perception of reality is just your perception. It’s not reality. Test ideas, test lots of ideas. People are going to react in ways you don’t expect. Do stupid things — people never put enough intensity into doing stupid things.
You know how you’ll think, “Hey, it’d be really cool if ____________.” The thing is, people talk about that stuff a lot, and people around them are like, “No, that’ll never work, why would you do that?” People’s standard mode is to refuse new ideas.
And that’s normal, because the majority of new ideas are bad. No matter how smart you are, the probability that you’ll come up with an actually good new idea is very low. The real difference between creative people and non-creative people is that creative people try out stupid ideas all the time.
Most of the things that a great chef makes aren’t really good, and they never make it to your plate. They spend their day combining thousands of things that nobody would think could work together — and most of the time they don’t! But those failures are exactly how they find amazing combinations that nobody would have dreamed of.
Inspiration isn’t just sitting down, thinking deeply, and then something magical happens. It doesn’t work like that. Great chefs try disgusting things all the time. Great entrepreneurs have to do the same kind of testing.
Being an entrepreneur isn’t about having one idea. It’s about having something you want to change, a field you want to revolutionize, because you like it, because it makes sense that you go tackle challenges in that field. And then it’s about trying as many stupid ideas as possible, with enough intensity, until something works.
How many times can you be wrong? It’s infinite. But you only need to be right a few times to make something that really matters. Most startups don’t meet their true potential because they don’t try enough stupid things.
Startups are hard because good ideas fail all the time. There are so many ideas that sound like they’ll make great businesses, and they fail because we’re wrong. They fail because the entrepreneur doesn’t find the right way to execute, or because something happens that could just be luck, or it could be something nobody had understood before.
Startups are about doing, not thinking.