Ready, Steady, Startup

Startup ideas are solutions. Think about it: Have you downloaded an app in the past year or two, then advocated it to others because it solved a problem for you? Citymapper is an absolutely fantastic solution for getting around London and many other cities. TransferWise is taking the world by storm, making millions and saving millions. And these are all some of the recent startups that most of us have heard of.

I’ve personally been in and out of many startups the past couple of years. I’m no expert, but I’m starting to see a pattern. I have three stories to tell, and I aim to answer one question: what really makes a good startup idea?

The People

Almost a year ago, someone approached me with an honestly revolutionary idea (and I’m not a fan of that word, so I don’t use it lightly).

They asked me: What is email? On a very basic level, it’s just a list of messages that arrive in chronological order. Since email was founded, it hasn’t changed.

It drives me crazy that email still looks like this.

Microsoft Office Outlook Screencap

There’s at least a hundred buttons on that page alone. Honestly, if my screen looked like that it might cause me anxiety. But in short, we wanted to simplify it. We wanted to turn Outlook into this.

Iron Man ❤

So we created a much simpler interface for email, and we showed to all of our potential users. And you know what? They loved it. Almost every single one of them said they wanted it.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. We met with some people who started their own successful email startups, and engineers who have worked in similar products. We were told our idea wasn’t original, and we were aware of that, but that even when users were offered a “smart” dashboard or interface to their emails, they always went back to the original interface.

Yes, they didn’t want to go all Tony Stark. They actually liked Outlook-style email better.

Of course, this was really disappointing for us as startup founders. People really loved the idea of having a new interface for their emails… but I think that was it. They loved the idea, but they didn’t really adopt the change.

How many of you use Gmail? Do you folks remember when Google released their new “Inbox” page? Most of the people I know just clicked on the “Oh God no please take me back” button.

So it’s always good to remember: sometimes, you need to understand whether the users will actually use your product, as opposed to whether they like it.

The Environment

Let’s talk about the environment. This encompasses your target audience’s culture and mentality. Let me tell you another story.

I come from the beautiful seaside city of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. I usually fly back there over the summer to visit family and see friends.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

On one particular summer, I went to visit a relative of mine who had recently had a baby. She was giving away baby-shaped candles to those who visited, and I told her they were lovely, and asked where she got them from. Her response was “Instagram”.

I was slightly confused because, back then, I didn’t use Instagram. As far as I was aware at the time, Instagram was not a shop. I thought either she meant Amazon or eBay and got confused, or there’s a gift shop that opened up in town called Instagram.

Moving on, I saw her mother spreading out a gorgeous looking dress on the floor. I am aware that her mother makes custom dresses and sells them to her friends and family, but she was taking a dozen photos. And I heard her ask my mom: “Do you want it for anyone you know, before I post it on Instagram?”

Now, I’m sure all of you are aware that Saudi Arabia’s culture is very different to what some of us here are familiar with. Nowadays things are different, but over the past century women mainly stayed home. This led to a beautiful movement of women starting their own businesses from within their own homes, and they were now using Instagram to market their products and talents. It baffled me that Instagram, which is definitely not a marketplace for this sort of thing, was seen as the closest thing to one.

So, I decided to build a marketplace myself. I built a very basic platform, and we had a very small soft-launch a month later (and by soft launch, I mean “Mom and dad, can you please send this message to everyone you know on WhatsApp?”). And, well, I learned that necessity really is the mother of invention.

In 24 hours, we had 200 people express their interest in six cities across the country. I was completely wrong when I thought the market was exclusively for women. Men and women of all ages, those studying and those employed, were marketing their talents and skills on Instagram. From translation, to fashion and accessories, to wedding cakes and food catering, to logo designs and video editing.

All of a sudden people across the country were tweeting about us, and the Saudi Minister of Social Affairs at the time met with us and said he wanted to see us grow because he firmly believed in what we were building.

The summary of this is little anecdote is that the environment, and the culture, can be a very important factor when coming up with an idea. And the environment isn’t always culture, it could be knowledge. If you’re building an app for the elderly, for example, particularly those who are inexperienced with technology, you need to be sure that your solution is easy enough for them to learn to use.

The Problem

When building a startup, the core of your whole idea is the problem you’re trying to solve.

In the summer of 2015, I had a few health issues and had to undergo surgery. I was required to take multiple different medicines, each with different conditions and timings, and it was extremely difficult to schedule my medication myself. My morphine-addled brain thought: “Well there’s probably an app for that”, and but I couldn’t find any that suited me well.

So, I set a goal to create an easy-to-use smartphone application that allows patients to schedule their medication efficiently, and use planning algorithms to predict when patients should take their next dose. I approached one of my lecturers and an expert in artificial intelligence planning, Dr. Andrew Coles, and proposed The Medic App as the final year project I have to build for my undergraduate degree. He kindly agreed to supervise me, and I began working on building Medic in December.

I have never worked on a project so passionately. Medic was the reason I got up every morning, and working on it was the activity I looked forward to every day. I spent days and nights, weekdays and weekends, putting all of my effort and time into this app. I received an incredible amount of support from both the Entrepreneurship Institute and the Department of Informatics at King’s College London.

In March 2016, Medic was given three awards at the Lion’s Den Challenge, which is the annual flagship entrepreneurial competition at King’s, including an award for being the best start-up idea. A couple of months later, I was invited to speak on Soho Radio and was interviewed by the amazing Stefan Allesch-Taylor to talk about my app. I think the reason why Medic gained so much traction is the fact that it solved a problem that many people saw and thought “I can relate to that”.

Today, The Medic App is a proud member of the Kings20 Accelerator, a unique 12-month programme run by the King’s College London Entrepreneurship Institute, which provides mentorship from leading entrepreneurs, revenue generating support, access to investors and accelerator space equivalent to £30,000 worth of investment. (shameless plug: you can follow The Medic App’s progress on Twitter.)

Let’s Recap.

Do the users need it? Remember, you’re not asking if they want it, those are two very distinct things.

Does it suit the environment? Does your audience have the mentality and the knowledge required?

Does it solve the problem? If your idea doesn’t really solve a problem, then it isn’t really a solution, which means it isn’t really needed.

And finally: what is your motivation? I know what you’re thinking.

Yes, we all want to be just like Huell from Breaking Bad and lay on a mattress of cash. But I’ll give you some advice I heard from an entrepreneur when I was just starting:

Don’t think of how you can make a million dollars. Think of how you can solve a problem that a million people have.


Originally published on LinkedIn.