The first question I had was, “Where to start?” I thought passions? What I want to change in the world? These are the things we hear, but they never really resonated with me. When I started my career as a consultant, I learned there are a lot of problems in the world, and it’s actually pretty easy to get passionate about any of them. As long as you can get academically invested, you can become passionate about it. To me, it turns out that ideas are abundant; however, the approach to testing an idea and filtering out viable ideas is more of the challenge.
Finding a single good idea for me
For an idea, Michael Siebel has a simple formula for finding ideas (https://youtu.be/5fmDKGV0TnQ):
- Think of a problem in your everyday life
- Find some friends to collaborate with and brainstorm ideas
- Build an MVP
The video is really great, and what’s most interesting is the case study Michael Siebel provides in your everyday life.
I think if you wanted to just dive into a startup, then this depth-first search as suggested above — where you explore and test an idea pretty deeply — is great for coming up with an idea faster than if you do a complete search and think of everything else. On principle, in Computer Science, depth-first search is a lot faster at finding a possible solution. The limitation is that depth-first search does not guarantee a solution (company success). It’s not complete.
A good example of this is this blog. I have wanted to be an entrepreneur my entire life. I spent some time in different startup situations. However, I wanted to find out how to better test and allocate my time to an idea before making the commitment. I realized I am not getting any younger, figure my luck is staying flat, so I could increase my smarts by testing these ideas and trying to find a complete way to test ideas. So this blog is about breadth-first search, where you incrementally test a bunch of options. It’s a much slower algorithm, but it does guarantee a solution. I am trying to mitigate my risk of starting a company before I take the plunge again.
Finding multiple ideas
So the first requirement for me is getting a lot of ideas to test quickly, and I have a few sources for ideas.
- As described above, I have first looked at my personal life
- My network has given me a bunch of ideas
- Most VCs have a list of ideas in a request for startups or list of what they are interested in investing in
- Students and other ambitious people who want to get into VC publish tons of ideas on Medium daily
Filtering out ideas
The second requirement is filtering out, quickly, these ideas as ideas to test. This is where I have a few unique requirements, that may be controversial, but the goal is to test things quickly. So here are some other requirements with a brief explanation.
1. Can I empathize with the problem?
It’s really easy to get excited and interested in a problem as you learn more about it. However, what is going to carry you through the tough times, which are generally the slowest times, is whether you know this pain that your potential customers are going through. It does not mean you have to experience the problem yourself, but you do need to empathize with this. For me, I can really empathize with the problems that healthcare providers face everyday because my entire family has been healthcare providers. I also can empathize with really disenfranchised groups because my grandparents were interned, Japanese-American civil rights activists, and I have been going to memorials and days of remembrances. I have never been a provider or been interned, but I can understand the pain of these experiences.
2. Is a computer good at solving this problem?
If you watch this 1997 Jeff Bezos interview (https://youtu.be/rWRbTnE1PEM), it’s clear the premise was there are more books than any store can ever hold. Computers are good at two things: processing data to turn it into information and transmitting/accessing information. Together, these two things can also abstract the necessity for some physical interfaces. Any advancement in computer science just really does one of these two things better. This means that there are things that computers do not do well, like human connection. Social networks do not connect people, they provide access to people. The connection is from the content you share with others.
3. Is this problem economically tractable?
In the interview with Michael Siebel mentioned above, his case study ends with the problem of affordable childcare. In my mind, this problem is economically intractable. Both my parents worked full-time, so we always had a nanny (later called mother’s helper). Adjusting for inflation from personal experience, a nanny today probably costs to $20/hour or $40,000 per year full-time. If you need a nanny 5 days a week, then your nanny needs to be full-time or shared with another family as a mini day care because everyone works the same hours. This means that even if both partners make $100,000 a year, one partner is really working for a pre-tax income of $40,000 a year, where the $40,000 is taxed at a higher bracket and the expectations of the job are still as burdensome as any other $100,000 job. In my mind, affordable child care is economically intractable at the moment. So solving for it is not a viable idea. Solving the same problem of how can I get more part-time, remote work so I don’t need childcare is an economically tractable problem.
4. Can I build a prototype quickly?
This is all about testing something quickly. So ideas where a landing page can be just enough to test the idea is necessary. However, this creates another independent variable of how sellable is the landing page. There are a few things that help with this, but one clear one is does this sound real? The quicker you can conceive how to build a MVP and how quick the steps are to iterate beyond that make it more sellable. This means that the app concept has to be interesting, which only comes from data. So having a clear path to get data quickly to add to the MVP is essential.
In my mind, ideas are abundant, the trick is filtering them out with criteria that would actually keep me interested in the idea.