Thursday, January 27, 2011

You Don't Need A Good Idea To Start A Great Company

I met recently with a friend of mine who has been talking about leaving Google for the last 3 years.  Every time I see him he says he is just "waiting for a great idea" to leave to start his own company.  I expect him to do what a lot of people do - stick around Google for another 6-24 months, and then join someone else's company.  He is never going to start anything.

I think "waiting for a great idea" is absolutely the wrong way to "start" a company, and typically does not yield a startup.

Startups are not about working on a great idea - they are the relentless pursuit of doing stuff for customers.

  • Start a company.  Don't "start an idea".
    • As you work on your "good idea", you will quickly find that nobody wants to use it.  This means you will keep iterating on the product and potentially even the market until someone wants it.   Many "side projects" or internal tools are examples of this, as they have turned into great stand alone companies or products.  Blogger came out of Pyra Labs as an internal tool.   Github came out of an internal tool at a startup.  Yammer came out of Geni.   GroupOn came out of thePoint.
    • The key to all the examples above were that the entrepreneurs were actually *starting a company*, not *starting an idea*.  It is more important to do something, anything at all, than wait and do nothing with the hope of thinking of something great.
  • If it was that obvious, someone would have already done it.
    • There is a dearth of great ideas just sitting around without someone executing them.
  • Focus on a great market, not a great idea
    • As you iterate in a market, you will often find that the initial idea you chose is less important then the broader market you are in.  A great market will always have opportunities in it.  Even if the first idea is terrible you will get to know the market and its needs and build something great on your next try.  In contrast a great idea in a terrible market will often fail.  Don Valentine, the legendary founder of Sequoia capital (investments by him include Cisco, Apple, Atari, Oracle and EA) always says the market is the primary thing that matters to him.
    • Josh Koppelman calls great entrepreneurs "Heat seeking missiles" as they hone in on their target/market even if their initial course if off.  Startups are exactly like this. (I always wonder what would happen if Josh's "heat seeking missiles" got into a fray with Mike Maples "thunder lizards from radioactive atomic eggs" - what entrepreneur could possibly survive the resulting explosion????)
  • It is all about execution.  Even if you have a great idea - 5 other people will have it at the same time.  This is why so many similar companies get started more or less simultaneously.  See e.g., PicPlz,, PicBounce, in the photo sharing space.
The next time you stop yourself to "wait for a good idea", don't stop yourself.  Go and build something that is a bad idea in a great market, or something small but is a product you want for yourself.  Iterate on it and keep pushing, and eventually you will find the bad idea has become a very good company indeed.

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