Schrödinger’s Startup — do you have a Startup Idea or Just an Idea?

By Dan Casas-Murray

Erwin Schrödinger was a quantum physicist in 1935 who postulated that the mere observation of a subatomic particle would change its state. His most famous example is the case of Schrodinger’s Cat — a cat, in a box, after a catastrophic event occurs (pun not intentional but not omitted, either), will remain both alive and deceased until it is observed. In this post, we’ll see how an Entrepreneur in 2017 can employ this principle in starting a startup.

It happens to all of us at some point in our lives (and more than once for those afflicted with Entrepreneur’s Syndrome). We’re minding our own business when all of a sudden, a group of ideas coalesce into the next big way to change the course of human history. In this powerful moment, we have a vision and can imagine many implications at once.

Maybe a couple days or weeks pass and our excitement subsides a bit. In the creative afterglow, we’re able to look fondly upon that idea and see where it had merit and where it needed work. And then the stuff really hits the fan, because this seemingly innocent question pops up:

The lucky ones decide to just leave it alone and escape. The unlucky ones will start to wonder how the idea can be turned into reality. Five years, lots of money, and colossal efforts later, there’s either a startup or a bunch of lessons learned and no startup.

So how do we know if we have a startup or not? The best way is to avoid placing value on an idea altogether and adopt a judgement-free, observational mindset. Below, we take a look at a few situations where Schrödinger’s theory can ‘set us free’ and help us realize if we have a startup — or not.

Startin’ Easy

In a video explaining the theory of relativity, Hillary Andales demonstrates two people sitting at a table, looking at a number. From Person A’s perspective, the number is a 9. From Person B’s point of view, the number is 6. Yet the number is just a curvy line drawn on a piece of paper.

We can apply this to a business idea as well: if a customer is Observer A and the Entrepreneur is Observer B, perspectives will likely differ.

Gettin’ Intermediate with Food Delivery

The Food Delivery idea is simple: a user can open an app, browse for and select different types of cuisine, pay for it, and have it delivered.

Historically speaking, food delivery is not a novel concept. In a piece by Emelyn Rude, we learn that take-out has been available in cultures dating back to the ancient Romans (you want fried artichokes with that?). The end of WWII saw Pizza Delivery come into vogue after American troops experienced a little Italian flavor. And from 2011 to 2015-ish, mobile app food delivery started gaining momentum.

While the industry is growing quickly in the US, it’s been established in China for the last 10 years, this Economist article says. In the next year, the industry is projected to grow 38% — and we’re talking about billions of dollars here. Funny enough, both of the market leaders are still posting losses, so they aren’t profitable yet. There have been some positive consequences, such as increased convenience for shoppers. There have also been some negative consequences, like the increased volume of discarded trash containers.

There are arguments we could make about why food delivery is great, and why it’s not so great. While not a new concept, the logistics are becoming much more efficient, and there seems to be voluminous demand that is capable of outpacing cost. According to Schrödinger then, the food delivery thing is both an awesome, game changing idea and an experiment that can fail spectacularly. In this case, time will tell us what happens eventually.

Levelin’ Up to the “Inspirational” Idea

We could make apples self-juicing. We could genetically alter apple trees to produce the apple shells, but instead of pulp, little apple-bulbs full of juice would grow. It could be concentrated or diluted, depending on the ‘apple-breed.’

We might be tempted at first to think about the technical feasibility of such a thing. We could start talking to people, see how much something like this would cost, or eventually stumble across a government-alien collaborative program on the dark web that shows that it’s been developing for years.

Or instead of going down that rabbit hole, we could think about how a self-juicing apple would benefit humanity by cutting down on juicebox waste for apple juice — wait — for all the fruits. And we should totally genetically bioengineer everything so that it comes out of the ground in juice form with its organic, biodegradable wrapper.

So here’s a Fun Fact: What they don’t tell you in Entrepreneur-school is that big ideas, while the driving force behind huge achievements, require disproportionately big efforts. Like, take-your-health-away-big efforts, and there is no way to know if it’ll ever pan out.

It turns out that people must buy stuff for a business to work. So wouldn’t it make sense to start thinking about the self-juicing thing from a customer perspective first? How could we start testing this in order to start drawing unemotional, objective conclusions about this idea?

The good news is that practical testing can lead to observable, measurable behavior. The trick is to test your big idea’s principle while keeping it as quick and cheap as possible. Let’s look at our apple example to see how this applies:

Imagine a store where people can choose between an apple and self-juiced apple. We would be able to see if folks were willing to buy the self-juiced apple from sales data. But we don’t even have the apple yet, so that’s kind of impractical. We could simulate a self-juiced apple: we could buy a bottle or a box that looks like an apple and put it in front of customers, observing their choices. But that means packaging and getting a product line together, so let’s simplify a little more. Let’s put an apple and an apple with actual juice in it in front of party guests.

And co-workers. And family. And kids. And let’s do it multiple times so that we can get to the true test of observable behavior — after the novelty has worn off, will people keep choosing the apple with juice in it or do they actually like that crunch? Would there be cases when people would prefer juice over the crunch? Now we’re getting somewhere with these questions, and we’re starting to uncover the truth as the market reveals itself. Just as Mr. Schrödinger’s cat isn’t alive or dead until we observe it, the same holds true for your startup: it ain’t alive til there are sales, but there’s no way to tell if there will be sales until it’s exposed to people.

Graduatin’ with Your Idea

It seems then that an 83-year old quantum physics theory applies to entrepreneurship: ideas can be startup ideas or just ideas. They don’t exhibit one outcome or another until they’re validated in the market.

In observing what customers tell you about your idea, ask yourself: Is it easily understandable? Does it solve a problem for them? Did they tell you about this problem and tell you your solution would be something they would pay for? Did they demonstrate this willingness or just talk about it?

A startup’s function is to search for and find a repeatable business model — and that’s the mindset you adopt if you’re wondering if you should pursue your idea or not. The trick is to figure out which ideas are worth working on and which ones should be buried, and quickly. Those ideas we can discard make room for the ones that actually have potential.

For more information on how to start a startup or on market validation, visit Dan Casas-Murray over at hackerlab.org.