The Great Filter of Startups
The evolutionary leap that only a small fraction of startups manage to make
In pondering the Fermi paradox, the confusing fact that humans seem to be the only intelligent life in the observable universe, a popular theory first published by Robin Hanson asserts the existence of an evolutionary leap that’s extremely rare for any species to make. The “Great Filter” is Hanson’s term for this species-killing leap. Check out WaitButWhy’s explanation for more details.
Let’s talk about another Great Filter: the Great Filter of Startups. It’s the evolutionary leap that only a small fraction of startups manage to make. Do you know what I’m referring to?
The Great Filter of Startups is having zero users because you never create value for a single user.
In my observation, about 80% of startups are killed by the Great Filter before they ever got one user. I find this shockingly wasteful.
People don’t realize that most startups’ fate is already sealed in their idea phase: they never have a well-formed value prop story.
I’m constantly watching startups with incoherent value prop stories predictably die in a super pathetic way: Not by being unprofitable, not by being outcompeted… just by living in their own isolated world and never building a bridge to one single outside person outside of the startup. By never having anyone outside the startup care that they exist.
The reason I write this blog is because I constantly see brilliant founders investing so much time and money on a project, in seemingly complete ignorance about Great Filter of Startups. To me, they look like a truck driving full speed ahead toward the same concrete wall that 80% of other startups before them have crashed into.
But hey, startups are supposed to hard, right? Yes… but getting the first user isn’t supposed to be the hard part! Getting one user really shouldn’t be the Great Filter that it is.
Right now, the problem is just that most founders don’t make it their explicit goal to get one user. They don’t have the awareness of the Great Filter looming in front of them. They’re driving the truck into the wall because they aren’t aware of the wall.
Once more founders learn about the Great Filter, they’ll learn the best practices for routing around it, and it’ll stop killing 80% of startups. It’ll stop being the Great Filter.