30/09/2014 — Counterintuitive Part of Startups and How to Have Ideas — Paul Graham


Startups are very counterintuitive and I am not sure exactly why. But the main is that that is an area where you cannot trust your intuition all the time. Just like skiing — you have to lean forward (and not backward) in order not to fall on the slope.

Here’s a list of stuff that you have to remember that prevent your instincts to lead you astray.

1. Startups are so weird that if you follow your instincts that will lead you astray.

When I was leading YC, my function was merely to tell founders things that they have to ignore. Batch after batch YC partners warned founders about mistakes, they are about to make, and the founders ignored them. But why the founders persistently ignore partners’ advice? Well, that’s the thing with the counterintuitive ideas — they contradict your intuition!

You can however trust your instincts about people, cause people in business are the same people. In fact the biggest mistake founders make is not trust their intuition about people. They meet someone that feels impressive. And later when things blow up they say: ‘I knew that there was something wrong about that guy but I ignored it cause seemed to be impressive!’

So, pick people the way you would pick friends! Work with people that you genuinely love and respect and that you know long enough to be sure, cause there are pretty many people that are seemingly likable for a while. Just wait until your interests are opposed.

2. What you need to succeed in startups in not an expertise in startups, but an expertise in your own users!

Mark Zuckerberg succeeded despite him being completely new to startups. Just listen to this — Facebook was first incorporated as a Florida Llc! And if you ask him about the mechanics of raising an angel round, he wouldn’t know it. Even if he had been paying attention when Ron Conway was writing him a big check, he would have forgotten it by now anyway.

That is even a bigger threat than not knowing the mechanics of starting a startup, that is a motion of starting a startup. Guys start with a plausible idea, raise a round at a nice valuation, rent an office in a nice place, hire a bunch of their friends and and finally realize how completely fucked up they are: by imitating all the outward forms of starting a startup they forgot one thing that is essential — to actually make something people want. We have seen it so often that we came up with a name for it — a playing house. Finally we realized why young people are going through the motion of starting a startup, is because that was what they were trained to do.

Think about what it takes to get into college: extra curriculum activities. Check! The same logic they apply when doing a startup: what do I need to raise an angel round? To convince my investors? What are the tricks for growing fast? etc. BTW, whenever you hear the term growth hack, translate in your mind into bullshit. Because if you want to make something grow, make something that users really love and tell them about it.

3. Starting a startup is where a gaming system stops working.

It might be still working in the big companies, where you seem to be productive by sending an email late at night. But in startups there is no boss or people to trick. There are only your users that care only about whether your software does what they want. Faking might work in the beginning, but at the end your startup is doomed, and all you do it you are wasting your precious time.

Stop looking for the tricks. Solve the real problem.

Someone that knows zero about fundraising but that have made something that users really love will have easier time raising money than someone that knows every trick in the book but that has a flat usage graph.

4. How do you win at each type of work and how do you win by doing?

Startups are all consuming.

If you start a startup it will take over your life to the degree you cannot imagine and if it succeeds it will take over your life for a long time, for several years at least, decades or the whole life. So, there is some opportunity cost.

Successful YC founders say that it never gets any easier: the nature of the problem changes, but the total volume of worrying never decreases. Starting a startup is like having kids — it is a button that you press that changes your life irrevocably.

They say that the best time for startups is in college. There are lots of programs being open at the universities that teach you what you need to know to run a startup. But eventually the only thing that you really need to know is your users’ needs. And since startups are time absorbing activities, you can be either a student or a startup founder. So, what to do? Do not start a startup in college! 20 years in not an optimal time to do it, cause there are much more fun stuff, like backpack around Thailand.

5. Should you do it in any age? You can’t tell.

Starting a startup is really hard! Is it too hard and are you up for this challenge? You can’t tell! Your life so far has given you some idea of your prospects might be, if you want to become a mathematician or a professional football player. But unless you had a really strange life indeed, you haven’t done much like starting a startup, meaning starting a startup will change you a lot if it works out. So, what you are trying to estimate, is not just what you are, but what you become and who can do that.

If you are now terrified about starting a startup don’t do it. If you are still unsure, the only way to know is to try. So, if you are you going for it, there are only two things that are needed: an idea and co-founders.

6. The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think about startup ideas.

If you make a conscious effort to try to think about ideas for startups, you will end up not only bad ideas, but bad and sounding plausible, meaning you and everybody else will be fooled by them and you will waste a lot of time before realizing they are no good.

The way to come up with good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort thinking about startup ideas, turn your brain into the type that has startup ideas unconsciously. In fact so unconsciously that you do not realize that they are startup ideas. Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Apple — all started this way. They were not even supposed to be companies at first, they were all just side projects, cause they are such an outliers that your mind will constantly reject them.

So, how do you turn your mind into one that has startup ideas unconsciously?

  1. Learn a lot about the things that matter;
  2. Work on problems that interest you
  3. With people you like and respect — this part is about how you get co-founders at the same time as an idea.

Point number one sounded at first as ‘learn some technology’, but that was’t 100% correct. Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia graduated from art school. But they were terribly good in organizing people and getting projects done. So you don’t need to work on technology per se, so long as things stretch you. What kind of things are those? How do you know that you are working on real stuff?

Real problems are interesting!

If you are genuinely interested in genuinely interesting problems, gratify your interest energetically, that is the best way to prepare yourself for a startup and the best way to live.

One guaranteed way to turn your mind into the type where startup ideas form unconsciously is to get yourself to the leading edge of technology, live in the future.

Another thing that really matters in entrepreneurship is a domain expertise. Larry Page became an expert in search cause he was genuinely interested in it.

At its best, starting a startup has ulterior motive as curiosity. And you will do it best if you introduce ulterior motive to the end of the process. So here is an ultimate advice to a young wannabe startup founders reduced to two words: Just Learn.

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