I talk to a lot of people in the startup world and many of them have really good ideas – ideas that are going to take the world by storm. As a matter of fact pretty much all of them have one, and most of the conversations revolve around the fact that the particular insight at hand is not only a good idea, it is <<the>> idea. I believe many of these guys are right – they are intelligent people who can envision a process – and there is no shortage of potentially great and certainly worthwhile things to try. Moreover they are passionate, committed and incredibly positive about their enterprise – most everyone in the startup world seems to be incredibly optimistic all the time, which I suppose is just a derivative of the culture and environment as well as the firm belief necessary to make a business succeed.
However, every time I have such a conversation I am reminded of Paul Graham’s essay aptly entitled “Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas,” where he talks about just that and uses himself as a primary example for analysis. The anecdote of his first startup called Artix, which was an enterprise to put galleries on the web and the reasons for it’s failure are not that important, and perhaps not even pertinent today, but what is interesting is summed up in the following:
If you’re going to spend years working on something, you’d think it might be wise to spend at least a couple days considering different ideas, instead of going with the first that comes into your head. You’d think. But people don’t. In fact, this is a constant problem when you’re painting still lifes. You plonk down a bunch of stuff on a table, and maybe spend five or ten minutes rearranging it to look interesting. But you’re so impatient to get started painting that ten minutes of rearranging feels very long. So you start painting. Three days later, having spent twenty hours staring at it, you’re kicking yourself for having set up such an awkward and boring composition, but by then it’s too late…
So the biggest cause of bad ideas is the still life effect: you come up with a random idea, plunge into it, and then at each point (a day, a week, a month) feel you’ve put so much time into it that this must be the idea.
I’ve certainly fallen into this trap a number of times. Here is a personal anecdote to add to the one above. Some time ago I was stumbling around NYC and noticed that there were more and more food-trucks on the streets. With a bit of reading, I saw that there was a lot of hype surrounding these 4-wheel eateries, that new ones were popping up all the time, and that people seemed to be really excited, i.e. there were a lot of blog posts with lots of opinion related to the topic. Moreover, the trucks owners were not that great at self-promotion and it was in general hard to know where a truck is, or would be, at any given moment. Then I came to the conclusion, or something of the sort, that a site that tracks food-trucks in real time is the ticket! So I convinced a brilliant tech guy to work on this thing with me and we built the site in a couple of weeks. All the owners had to do was sign up once – about 30s of their time – and we’d allow them to post their location on the site, via sms, and potentially even dynamically with gps tracking (this feature we never got off the ground). Why wouldn’t they sign?! – it’s fast, free, could only increase the customer base, and we’d do all the work. Well, for the most part they didn’t sign up. Maybe we didn’t pitch it correctly, maybe they didn’t trust us, or maybe they just didn’t care – perhaps they had enough followers and were maxing out the food supply everyday as it was, who knows, and maybe there are a lot of blog posts on just about any topic… hmm… Anyhow, the point is we spent a good amount of time on this and the more time we spent the better the idea seemed – perhaps this should be tell-tale that something might be going wrong. By the way if you are curious, here is the tombstone.
So how do you tell if you have a great idea, or even a good one? Paul Graham thinks it should be the one that always surfaces when you have any down time, but if you are compulsive like me there is not much “surfacing” going on in general. Perhaps you should share it with others, but then with whom? what if you don’t want to just give it away, or you think that the people you trust are not going to be sufficiently critical. Perhaps you should assume it’s a bad idea and try to convince yourself of this fact and move with it only in the case that you fail to do so. But this requires being very honest with oneself during the entire process, which is not an easy task.
In addition, depending on your personality, self-esteem, and the like this could actually kill a genuinely good idea. Or it can distract you enough to move onto something else. My partner in the food-truck venture noted that he has seen a lot of smart people let good ideas just slip out of their hands and this can happen in a variety of different ways. One such example he notes is a
… sort of moving life effect: you have an idea that lived in the shower for days, perhaps years, and suddenly a change which you don’t say no to, makes you work on something else.
Moreover, how do you tell if the thing someone else is pitching is worthwhile? – especially pertinent and first to surface when you are considering joining a young startup. Perhaps in addition to the idea and execution plan sounding solid, you should be sure that the people you are about to engage with are smart and flexible enough to evolve, or change the idea so as to eventually arrive at something that actually works. Maybe that is the ticket!