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Ideas are cheap

"Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here's an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there's no market for startup ideas suggests there's no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless." – Paul Graham

There’s a popular saying in startup advice that “ideas are cheap.” This feels counterintuitive because of how we feel when we see successful products or companies. When people reflect on the success of Airbnb, few people say “great execution”. Everyone says “what a great idea that was”.

In some ways, this phenomenon is because of design. Great design is often the differentiator that makes these success stories but at the same time, the nature of great design is that it’s so effortless or invisible. So much so that after the fact it looks so obvious and simple that people wonder at how it could have “taken so long” to arrive at this point.

But it’s true, ideas are cheap. So cheap, in fact, that we might call them worthless. Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, does in his essay about startup ideas:

Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here's an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there's no market for startup ideas suggests there's no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

This is also part of the reason that venture capital firms won’t sign NDAs before hearing about your startup. Nobody cares. It’s all about execution, and identifying a potential (and unproven) opportunity is just a foot in the door, a seat at the table. What matters is how you execute on it.

Another way to know this is true is to look to the incidence of idea stealing. This is like voter fraud in the US—it almost never happens, but when it does it’s so emotionally concerning and such a big deal is made out of it that you’d think it’s a real issue if you didn’t know better. Movies like The Social Network or stories about the birth of Apple make it seem like the biggest tech companies are built entirely on fraud. While there’s an element to those cases that’s true, such cases are rarer than you’re led to believe and regardless, it’s a tiny fraction of their success. To the extent that there’s friction in ownership and origin of ideas, it’s usually more a byproduct of relatively inexperienced founder anxieties around management than anything else in my opinion.

Ideas are so cheap that IDEO, a famous design consultancy, is just giving them out now in articles like this or this. Y Combinator does something similar with their Requests for Startups page. These aren’t exactly ideas though; they’re actually more about problems or opportunities…

It's not about ideas, it's about problems

The more you solve problems, the more you come to two key realizations:

1: First, one of the reasons that ideas are so worthless is that ideas aren’t objectives or markets, but rather directions or products. In short, they solve a problem without really knowing what that problem is to begin with. To start here makes it very difficult to generate and, more importantly, validate, the sub-ideas that are the foundation of actually making an idea real and to pivot.

For companies in general, but particularly startups, few things are more important than focus. It’s a well-regarded fact of entrepreneurship that it’s better to make a single, sharply focused thing (something that solves a very specific pain for few people) than to make many, broadly appealing products. Here again we run into something that is counter-intuitive. Don’t I want my company to make something everyone wants? No. As the saying goes, a jack of all trades is a master of none. It’s just not possible in the vast majority of cases to build something that everyone wants very much. You’ll end up with something that maybe everyone wants a little bit. And nothing that people want a little bit is worth overcoming the inertia that exists to motivate any consumer to bother to pay for anything. So if people want it a little bit, it’s tantamount to them wanting it not at all.

Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures and a mentor to me when I was working on building Fiber, described startups and products like an isosceles triangle or wedge or maybe a knife or ax. The narrower/thinner it is, the sharper it is, and the more easily it stabs into the market. And startups are a knife fight.

Triangles.png

You also preserve resources this way, meaning the wedge can be longer. This means longer runway, deeper market penetration, and most importantly, more time to learn what works and what doesn’t, because you’re likely at least slightly wrong on your first try.

This means building products that are hyper-lean. They include only the most essential functionality to solve a problem. But back to the topic at hand: how does this relate to ideas?

When you start with an idea, it’s not possible to determine what parts of it are best. You fall in love with the outcome, not the pain that you’re fixing. This leads to bloated products and companies that eventually build an amazing product that nobody wants or can actually use.


2: Second, problem solving (or design, or creativity) is a learnable skill and so is relatively abundant to those who have learned it.

This is where ideas shine: there’s a lot of value to ideas from the standpoint of design thinking. Their generation, in the ideation phase, is arguably the most impactful part of design thinking. Most of design thinking processes are about validation, focus, and refinement, all activities that tend to come more naturally to people, particularly those (like a lot of non-design stakeholders) whose daily jobs don’t rely on creativity or out-of-the-box thinking. But it’s this creative idea generation that does a huge amount of heavy lifting in actually solving the problem.

This is only possible, though, when we start with the first step: empathize or understand. Or to put this another way, we have to know what we’re solving and for whom. That’s how we generate ideas and how we can judge success.

The design thinking workflow. Image via this article by Iain Heath on UX Collective.
The design thinking workflow. Image via this article by Iain Heath on UX Collective.

The other great thing that ideas do is that they inspire. They encourage new ways of seeing, doing, and being, which is often the competitive advantage companies need. But even better than such ideas is a machine that can churn them out reliably. This is machine is called process. It’s lubricated by experience and fueled by user-centricity or put another way, problems. A thousand idioms know this truth: “necessity is the mother of invention” or “give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”. This scalability starts by realizing that it’s systems, not specific cases, that matter most.

But nobody falls in love with systems and they do with ideas. While this can be cautionary (don’t fall in love with a single idea!) it’s also reason to pursue them: there’s nothing that inspires like ideas. It’s hard to validate if a system will solve my problem but it’s easy to see if a solution will.

Let’s go solve some problems!

Ideas

Ideas are cheap

There’s a popular saying in startup advice that “ideas are cheap.” This feels counterintuitive because of how we feel when we see successful products or companies. When people reflect on the success of Airbnb, few people say “great execution”. Everyone says “what a great idea that was”.

In some ways, this phenomenon is because of design. Great design is often the differentiator that makes these success stories but at the same time, the nature of great design is that it’s so effortless or invisible. So much so that after the fact it looks so obvious and simple that people wonder at how it could have “taken so long” to arrive at this point.

But it’s true, ideas are cheap. So cheap, in fact, that we might call them worthless. Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, does in his essay about startup ideas:

Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here's an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there's no market for startup ideas suggests there's no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

This is also part of the reason that venture capital firms won’t sign NDAs before hearing about your startup. Nobody cares. It’s all about execution, and identifying a potential (and unproven) opportunity is just a foot in the door, a seat at the table. What matters is how you execute on it.

Another way to know this is true is to look to the incidence of idea stealing. This is like voter fraud in the US—it almost never happens, but when it does it’s so emotionally concerning and such a big deal is made out of it that you’d think it’s a real issue if you didn’t know better. Movies like The Social Network or stories about the birth of Apple make it seem like the biggest tech companies are built entirely on fraud. While there’s an element to those cases that’s true, such cases are rarer than you’re led to believe and regardless, it’s a tiny fraction of their success. To the extent that there’s friction in ownership and origin of ideas, it’s usually more a byproduct of relatively inexperienced founder anxieties around management than anything else in my opinion.

Ideas are so cheap that IDEO, a famous design consultancy, is just giving them out now in articles like this or this. Y Combinator does something similar with their Requests for Startups page. These aren’t exactly ideas though; they’re actually more about problems or opportunities…

It's not about ideas, it's about problems

The more you solve problems, the more you come to two key realizations:

1: First, one of the reasons that ideas are so worthless is that ideas aren’t objectives or markets, but rather directions or products. In short, they solve a problem without really knowing what that problem is to begin with. To start here makes it very difficult to generate and, more importantly, validate, the sub-ideas that are the foundation of actually making an idea real and to pivot.

For companies in general, but particularly startups, few things are more important than focus. It’s a well-regarded fact of entrepreneurship that it’s better to make a single, sharply focused thing (something that solves a very specific pain for few people) than to make many, broadly appealing products. Here again we run into something that is counter-intuitive. Don’t I want my company to make something everyone wants? No. As the saying goes, a jack of all trades is a master of none. It’s just not possible in the vast majority of cases to build something that everyone wants very much. You’ll end up with something that maybe everyone wants a little bit. And nothing that people want a little bit is worth overcoming the inertia that exists to motivate any consumer to bother to pay for anything. So if people want it a little bit, it’s tantamount to them wanting it not at all.

Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures and a mentor to me when I was working on building Fiber, described startups and products like an isosceles triangle or wedge or maybe a knife or ax. The narrower/thinner it is, the sharper it is, and the more easily it stabs into the market. And startups are a knife fight.

Triangles.png

You also preserve resources this way, meaning the wedge can be longer. This means longer runway, deeper market penetration, and most importantly, more time to learn what works and what doesn’t, because you’re likely at least slightly wrong on your first try.

This means building products that are hyper-lean. They include only the most essential functionality to solve a problem. But back to the topic at hand: how does this relate to ideas?

When you start with an idea, it’s not possible to determine what parts of it are best. You fall in love with the outcome, not the pain that you’re fixing. This leads to bloated products and companies that eventually build an amazing product that nobody wants or can actually use.


2: Second, problem solving (or design, or creativity) is a learnable skill and so is relatively abundant to those who have learned it.

This is where ideas shine: there’s a lot of value to ideas from the standpoint of design thinking. Their generation, in the ideation phase, is arguably the most impactful part of design thinking. Most of design thinking processes are about validation, focus, and refinement, all activities that tend to come more naturally to people, particularly those (like a lot of non-design stakeholders) whose daily jobs don’t rely on creativity or out-of-the-box thinking. But it’s this creative idea generation that does a huge amount of heavy lifting in actually solving the problem.

This is only possible, though, when we start with the first step: empathize or understand. Or to put this another way, we have to know what we’re solving and for whom. That’s how we generate ideas and how we can judge success.

The design thinking workflow. Image via this article by Iain Heath on UX Collective.
The design thinking workflow. Image via this article by Iain Heath on UX Collective.

The other great thing that ideas do is that they inspire. They encourage new ways of seeing, doing, and being, which is often the competitive advantage companies need. But even better than such ideas is a machine that can churn them out reliably. This is machine is called process. It’s lubricated by experience and fueled by user-centricity or put another way, problems. A thousand idioms know this truth: “necessity is the mother of invention” or “give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”. This scalability starts by realizing that it’s systems, not specific cases, that matter most.

But nobody falls in love with systems and they do with ideas. While this can be cautionary (don’t fall in love with a single idea!) it’s also reason to pursue them: there’s nothing that inspires like ideas. It’s hard to validate if a system will solve my problem but it’s easy to see if a solution will.

Let’s go solve some problems!

Updated continuously • Last edited on
11.17.23
Ideas

Ideas are cheap

Updated continuously •
Last edited on
11.17.23

There’s a popular saying in startup advice that “ideas are cheap.” This feels counterintuitive because of how we feel when we see successful products or companies. When people reflect on the success of Airbnb, few people say “great execution”. Everyone says “what a great idea that was”.

In some ways, this phenomenon is because of design. Great design is often the differentiator that makes these success stories but at the same time, the nature of great design is that it’s so effortless or invisible. So much so that after the fact it looks so obvious and simple that people wonder at how it could have “taken so long” to arrive at this point.

But it’s true, ideas are cheap. So cheap, in fact, that we might call them worthless. Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, does in his essay about startup ideas:

Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here's an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there's no market for startup ideas suggests there's no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

This is also part of the reason that venture capital firms won’t sign NDAs before hearing about your startup. Nobody cares. It’s all about execution, and identifying a potential (and unproven) opportunity is just a foot in the door, a seat at the table. What matters is how you execute on it.

Another way to know this is true is to look to the incidence of idea stealing. This is like voter fraud in the US—it almost never happens, but when it does it’s so emotionally concerning and such a big deal is made out of it that you’d think it’s a real issue if you didn’t know better. Movies like The Social Network or stories about the birth of Apple make it seem like the biggest tech companies are built entirely on fraud. While there’s an element to those cases that’s true, such cases are rarer than you’re led to believe and regardless, it’s a tiny fraction of their success. To the extent that there’s friction in ownership and origin of ideas, it’s usually more a byproduct of relatively inexperienced founder anxieties around management than anything else in my opinion.

Ideas are so cheap that IDEO, a famous design consultancy, is just giving them out now in articles like this or this. Y Combinator does something similar with their Requests for Startups page. These aren’t exactly ideas though; they’re actually more about problems or opportunities…

It's not about ideas, it's about problems

The more you solve problems, the more you come to two key realizations:

1: First, one of the reasons that ideas are so worthless is that ideas aren’t objectives or markets, but rather directions or products. In short, they solve a problem without really knowing what that problem is to begin with. To start here makes it very difficult to generate and, more importantly, validate, the sub-ideas that are the foundation of actually making an idea real and to pivot.

For companies in general, but particularly startups, few things are more important than focus. It’s a well-regarded fact of entrepreneurship that it’s better to make a single, sharply focused thing (something that solves a very specific pain for few people) than to make many, broadly appealing products. Here again we run into something that is counter-intuitive. Don’t I want my company to make something everyone wants? No. As the saying goes, a jack of all trades is a master of none. It’s just not possible in the vast majority of cases to build something that everyone wants very much. You’ll end up with something that maybe everyone wants a little bit. And nothing that people want a little bit is worth overcoming the inertia that exists to motivate any consumer to bother to pay for anything. So if people want it a little bit, it’s tantamount to them wanting it not at all.

Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures and a mentor to me when I was working on building Fiber, described startups and products like an isosceles triangle or wedge or maybe a knife or ax. The narrower/thinner it is, the sharper it is, and the more easily it stabs into the market. And startups are a knife fight.

Triangles.png

You also preserve resources this way, meaning the wedge can be longer. This means longer runway, deeper market penetration, and most importantly, more time to learn what works and what doesn’t, because you’re likely at least slightly wrong on your first try.

This means building products that are hyper-lean. They include only the most essential functionality to solve a problem. But back to the topic at hand: how does this relate to ideas?

When you start with an idea, it’s not possible to determine what parts of it are best. You fall in love with the outcome, not the pain that you’re fixing. This leads to bloated products and companies that eventually build an amazing product that nobody wants or can actually use.


2: Second, problem solving (or design, or creativity) is a learnable skill and so is relatively abundant to those who have learned it.

This is where ideas shine: there’s a lot of value to ideas from the standpoint of design thinking. Their generation, in the ideation phase, is arguably the most impactful part of design thinking. Most of design thinking processes are about validation, focus, and refinement, all activities that tend to come more naturally to people, particularly those (like a lot of non-design stakeholders) whose daily jobs don’t rely on creativity or out-of-the-box thinking. But it’s this creative idea generation that does a huge amount of heavy lifting in actually solving the problem.

This is only possible, though, when we start with the first step: empathize or understand. Or to put this another way, we have to know what we’re solving and for whom. That’s how we generate ideas and how we can judge success.

The design thinking workflow. Image via this article by Iain Heath on UX Collective.
The design thinking workflow. Image via this article by Iain Heath on UX Collective.

The other great thing that ideas do is that they inspire. They encourage new ways of seeing, doing, and being, which is often the competitive advantage companies need. But even better than such ideas is a machine that can churn them out reliably. This is machine is called process. It’s lubricated by experience and fueled by user-centricity or put another way, problems. A thousand idioms know this truth: “necessity is the mother of invention” or “give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”. This scalability starts by realizing that it’s systems, not specific cases, that matter most.

But nobody falls in love with systems and they do with ideas. While this can be cautionary (don’t fall in love with a single idea!) it’s also reason to pursue them: there’s nothing that inspires like ideas. It’s hard to validate if a system will solve my problem but it’s easy to see if a solution will.

Let’s go solve some problems!

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