There is no such thing as the perfect idea

Good ideas are the result of constant iteration, exposure to customers and time. Conversely, there is no such thing as a bad idea and in my experience a ‘bad’ idea is not why EF startups fail. This piece will briefly run through what i’ve learnt about how the best ideas are formed in the earliest stages of an EF startup.

When first starting a startup, you’re trying to answer the question ‘what is the optimal use of my time’? This question should be asked to stop you from kidding yourself about what you’re working on (read here about kidding yourself). It’s not just about what customers want, it’s also about what excites and motivates you. Without this, you will run out of willpower long before customers show you whether they want what you’re building.

The perfect idea is a combination of building something that you really care about and building something that customers really want. This post looks into the former. The latter is still very hard, but I am always surprised by how many early stage founders try to kid themselves about what they really care about.

1) You’re building something you really care about

Building a startup is hard. But, if you are addicted to your idea, with a raw tenacity that means you can’t stop, you are likely to iterate to a point where you are building something people want (again, make sure you read Matt’s piece on why people fail). We have seen countless examples of EF teams running out of willpower because they didn’t really care about what they were building. This is a simple mistake that can be avoided.

You may jump on board with someone else’s idea, rather than generating your own – that’s fine. But, it still has to fit into one of the below categories.

a. Tech-driven

There is a piece of tech you have been working on (possibly as part of your degree, or in your spare time) that you want to continue with, or more likely, can’t stop yourself from working on. It’s likely that with time and iterations there will be a commercial application for it. Or, you join a co-founder who is working on a piece of tech that really excites you and allows you to use your skills to their full potential.

Typical features of a tech driven idea:

  • You are keenly interested in developing the piece of tech further
  • You have an inkling for how the technology might be commercially applied, but you are ambivalent about what industry it’s applied to in the short term
  • You may think or have been told in the past that there is no commercial application for what you have been building
  • Your co-founder is as, or more, technically skilled than you are, or potentially has domain expertise in the area (see below)

b. Obsession-driven

You have an itch you want to scratch, whether it’s a problem that you know intimately, or a sector that really excites you. This is usually based on some previous experience or knowledge you have. Be careful with this one. It’s easy to kid yourself (and us) that you are an obsessive in a particular area. Typically an obsession driven idea is an area in which you have knowledge, experience or connections (I don’t mean just having read an article on it recently).

Typical features of an obsession driven idea:

  • You know your customer intimately and it’s highly likely you would be a user of the product
  • You can point to specific examples of time spent on this obsession e.g., working in the industry, intense research on the industry
  • You have been playing with ideas in this space for sometime (you may have tried something, or built products in this space before)
  • You believe you have a unique insight into that space that comes from knowledge, experience or connections
  • It’s likely to be linked to one particular industry or customer (and it maybe that this group is fairly niche e.g., professional singers)
  • You could imagine working for a startup in this space (or have already)

2) You’re better than the next founder of a startup in that space

What advantage do you have compared to the next person building this startup? You can guarantee someone is building the same idea, at the same time, somewhere in the world. This is particularly important when you consider that you are younger than the average startup founder. Although the media would love to make us think the average founder is 21, in reality they are in their thirties with a wealth of experience. So why will you win?

Typically this comes down to:

a. Superior technical skills compared to the next startup founder

You are able to build something that the average startup founder can’t. You’re not comparing yourself to the rest of the Computer Science or Engineering population, you are comparing yourself to those who are starting a startup. The more difficult the product is to build, the lower the probability that someone else with other advantages (you might not have) has of building it. For example, if you are an expert in AI, don’t build an ecommerce site.

b. Knowledge, experience and connections

There are certain areas that are very hard to win in unless you are a domain expert. Ideally you want to focus on a space that you have some expertise in, particularly if it’s a space that the average Computer Scientist or startup founder may not know about. For example, medicine has a lot of obvious problems that can be solved through tech. However, if you want to win in this space you need unique knowledge about the hospitals/GPs etc and this probably doesn’t come from being a patient every now and then. It comes from being a doctor or perhaps being a patient with a chronic condition. This gives you unique knowledge, perspective and connections that others won’t have. This is also true for areas that seem easier to access, like fashion, sport and music etc. They might be easier to access, but they are easier for the rest of the startup population to access too. Unless you have specific unique knowledge of these spaces, it’s unlikely you will be able to win.

3) You have strong beliefs, weakly held

You can’t crowdsource a startup, or expect your potential customers to tell you exactly the product you should build. You have to have a strong belief from the beginning about the solution you are creating. You have a strong hunch about who will use the product, how and when they will use it and what benefit it will bring to them.

That said, you need to be seeking input from potential customers and users to help you check whether those initial assumptions were correct.

What if I don’t have a tech or obsession driven idea?

At EF, we help build teams and people coalesce around ideas in a number of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as people with an interest in the same space combining their ideas and knowledge. Or, it might be more nuanced, where someone who has a tech/obsession driven idea teams up with someone who has a more fledgling interest in the space.

When you’re at the start of your career, it can sometimes be hard to know what you are obsessed with. This is why I say ‘interested in’. It’s easy to kid yourself that you are interested in something. I’m interested in lots of things, for example art. But if you dig into those interests, it’s not how I spend my time (I go to a gallery once or twice a year) and if I compare myself to the next person who is truly interested in art, I wouldn’t be able to compete with them building a startup in this space (I have no knowledge, expertise or connections).

However, there are some instances where if your co-founder brings the obsession driven idea, you can quickly become an obsessive in that space too. Research, talking to customers, building stuff etc, can progress your obsession. But you need to check with yourself, are you growing more interested in what you are doing? Are you telling friends and family about what you have learnt in the space? Are you using every spare moment to further your knowledge and experience in the space? If you’re not, it probably means this isn’t an interest that can turn into an obsession and you should move onto a new team and idea.

Finally, guns don’t kill startups, people do

It’s very easy to be negative and to be critical. This is not how a startup is built and negative people are poisonous. Most good ideas sound like bad ideas (ask Peter Thiel). If someone had come to me with Snapchat, I could have pointed out many reasons why it wouldn’t work. But no-one can tell you your idea is bad, apart from your customers. At EF, we won’t tell you your idea is bad, we’ll get you to try and prove to us that it is good. Don’t point out to people why their ideas won’t work. That’s the easy bit, the hard bit is gathering evidence of why those ideas will work.

One of the reasons EF builds strong startups is that we combine different people from different backgrounds. Be open to people building on and changing your idea. Be open to suggestions for different applications of the technology that you have built. This is where the magic happens.

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