Why you should choose an ambitious startup idea
I believe that ambitious startup ideas have similar success probabilities to their less ambitious counterparts, if not higher success rates. No, I don’t have any hard evidence. Call it a highly educated guess.
Ambitious startup ideas usually operate in large expanding markets where there is a lot of money flowing. Even if your initial attack on the market fails, you can still often stumble onto a different beachhead where you can attack the greater landmass successfully. That’s because in a big market there are many beachheads.
Contrast that outcome with a less ambitious startup idea, which usually means picking a niche market ahead of time. In that case you’re limiting both market size and wiggle room, and so if your guess at the right niche is wrong, you can be left almost dead on arrival.
Another contributing factor is ambitious startup ideas are attractive to the ecosystem of startup land. If the idea is the brain, everything else you will eventually need is the body (employees, investors, press, etc.). An ambitious startup idea with just a little bit of traction attracts all the right body parts. A non-ambitious startup idea with just a little bit of traction languishes on AngelList.
Paul Graham (@paulg): Based on a lot of data, I’d say he’s right. It’s harder to work on an ambitious idea, but not proportionately harder.
Mark Andreessen (@pmarca): Great post — this is what my partner Ben and I have always believed. Starting a company is just plain hard. It’s not clear that starting an ambitious company is any harder than starting a less ambitious company. Your points on market size and being attractive to the ecosystem (particularly talented employees) are dead on.
The other thing we find is that less ambitious startups in Silicon Valley are often built to appeal to an acquirer as an exit strategy — the cliche of “we will work for two years and then Google will buy us for $50 million”. The big problem with that is what we call the “then what” problem — if Google doesn’t buy you, then what? Whereas ambitious companies built to stand on their own two feet and succeed in big markets are both highly attractive as acquisition targets and are viable independent companies.
Re-edited on September 12, 2015. Originally published on March 10, 2012.