Hard Ideas

I’ve been meeting future Entrepreneur First founders to talk about what they might work on. I’m excited by what they can build. But when deciding what to work on, sometimes they misjudge what makes startups hard, and try to de-risk them by doing something ‘easier’.

If you’re joining EF, your ideas probably take two forms: Hard Ideas – things you’d love to do, but which seem impossible; and Tempting Ideas – things that might be less exciting, but which you can already imagine how to start.

It’s tempting to work on Tempting Ideas, but you should resist temptation. It turns out, in the long run, it’s easier to work on Hard Ideas.

Problems

You shouldn’t avoid Hard Ideas because they involve hard problems.

Most hard problems are scary, but solvable. Examples are: complex industries; uncertain futures; regulation; hardware; hard software; time; and money.

Startups solve these kinds of problems all the time: they build new things; they raise money; and, no matter the idea, they take a long time to succeed. If you’re smart and determined, you should back yourself to solve hard problems too.

There are benefits to hard problems:

Hard problems can explain why a good idea hasn’t been done well already: people don’t try things that seem too difficult or unpleasant. After all, that’s why I’m writing this. But Tempting Ideas need explanation – if it’s intuitive or easy to start, why has nobody done it?

Hard problems you can solve are your answer to ‘Why you? Why now?’. And if you can solve a hard problem it’s often doubly valuable: your solution can temporarily defend you against competition; and, even if your solution is only half finished, it might be worth a lot.

Sticky

You shouldn’t start a startup just because you can think of how to start it, because starting won’t make it any easier to finish. An idea isn’t a good idea if you won't stick at it.

All startups require years of hard work, and even the best ones reach a point (or two!) where they must be brought back from the dead. This is why investors like mission-driven founders: if there’s another idea you’d rather be working on, in tough times that’s a risk.

When the time comes that your probability of success seems close to zero, you need a reason to survive. Since you know this moment is inevitable, you should optimise in advance for being sticky — whatever will keep you going.

There are two ways to do this:

First, pick an idea you’ll be glad you worked on even if it doesn’t quite work out, instead of picking an idea because you think it might.

Second, increase the magnitude of a successful outcome. Pick an idea that’s worth sticking to, even if it’s hard.

If you get these two right, taking investment should feel like cheating the system – someone is literally paying you to try something you’d want to try anyway, and if it works out you’ll be rich and successful.

Parachutes

Most people avoid Hard Ideas. This is the wrong bias to have, especially at EF.

EF exists to help you figure out what you can do, how you can do it, and then how to do it faster. If people only worked on problems they already knew how to solve, we wouldn’t be useful. Especially at EF, you don’t need to get a Tempting Idea out of the way to try something ambitious.

Doing a Tempting Idea at EF is like taking a parachute to the top of a diving board – you may as well not bother. If anything, we’ll make life more difficult by pulling and poking you in different directions. It’s just not what we’re made for.

But parachutes get more useful once you go higher. Beyond a point, you may as well just jump from as high as you can. EF is your chance to jump from 30,000 feet.


Thanks to the EF team for reading drafts of this. If you’d like to jump from 30,000 feet, start here.

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