Nothing will explain what your site does so well as using it. The industry term here is "conversion. You can measure this in your growth rate.
Either your site is catching on, or it isn't, and you must know which. If you have decent growth, you'll win in the end, no matter how obscure you are now. And if you don't, you need to fix something. Fear the Right Things. Another thing I find myself saying a lot is "don't worry. Most visible disasters are not so alarming as they seem. Disasters are normal in a startup: a founder quits, you discover a patent that covers what you're doing, your servers keep crashing, you run into an insoluble technical problem, you have to change your name, a deal falls through-- these are all par for the course.
They won't kill you unless you let them. Nor will most competitors. A lot of startups worry "what if Google builds something like us? The people at Google are smart, but no smarter than you; they're not as motivated, because Google is not going to go out of business if this one product fails; and even at Google they have a lot of bureaucracy to slow them down. What you should fear, as a startup, is not the established players, but other startups you don't know exist yet. They're way more dangerous than Google because, like you, they're cornered animals.
Looking just at existing competitors can give you a false sense of security. You should compete against what someone else could be doing, not just what you can see people doing. A corollary is that you shouldn't relax just because you have no visible competitors yet. No matter what your idea, there's someone else out there working on the same thing. That's the downside of it being easier to start a startup: more people are doing it. But I disagree with Caterina Fake when she says that makes this a bad time to start a startup.
More people are starting startups, but not as many more as could. Most college graduates still think they have to get a job. The average person can't ignore something that's been beaten into their head since they were three just because serving web pages recently got a lot cheaper. And in any case, competitors are not the biggest threat. Way more startups hose themselves than get crushed by competitors.
There are a lot of ways to do it, but the three main ones are internal disputes, inertia, and ignoring users. Each is, by itself, enough to kill you. But if I had to pick the worst, it would be ignoring users. If you want a recipe for a startup that's going to die, here it is: a couple of founders who have some great idea they know everyone is going to love, and that's what they're going to build, no matter what.
Almost everyone's initial plan is broken. If companies stuck to their initial plans, Microsoft would be selling programming languages, and Apple would be selling printed circuit boards. In both cases their customers told them what their business should be-- and they were smart enough to listen. As Richard Feynman said, the imagination of nature is greater than the imagination of man. You'll find more interesting things by looking at the world than you could ever produce just by thinking.
This principle is very powerful. It's why the best abstract painting still falls short of Leonardo, for example. And it applies to startups too. No idea for a product could ever be so clever as the ones you can discover by smashing a beam of prototypes into a beam of users. Commitment Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. I now have enough experience with startups to be able to say what the most important quality is in a startup founder, and it's not what you might think.
The most important quality in a startup founder is determination. Not intelligence-- determination. This is a little depressing. I'd like to believe Viaweb succeeded because we were smart, not merely determined. A lot of people in the startup world want to believe that. Not just founders, but investors too.
They like the idea of inhabiting a world ruled by intelligence. And you can tell they really believe this, because it affects their investment decisions. Time after time VCs invest in startups founded by eminent professors. This may work in biotech, where a lot of startups simply commercialize existing research, but in software you want to invest in students, not professors.
Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google were all founded by people who dropped out of school to do it. What students lack in experience they more than make up in dedication. Of course, if you want to get rich, it's not enough merely to be determined. You have to be smart too, right? I'd like to think so, but I've had an experience that convinced me otherwise: I spent several years living in New York. You can lose quite a lot in the brains department and it won't kill you.
But lose even a little bit in the commitment department, and that will kill you very rapidly. Running a startup is like walking on your hands: it's possible, but it requires extraordinary effort.
If an ordinary employee were asked to do the things a startup founder has to, he'd be very indignant. Imagine if you were hired at some big company, and in addition to writing software ten times faster than you'd ever had to before, they expected you to answer support calls, administer the servers, design the web site, cold-call customers, find the company office space, and go out and get everyone lunch.
And to do all this not in the calm, womb-like atmosphere of a big company, but against a backdrop of constant disasters. That's the part that really demands determination. In a startup, there's always some disaster happening. So if you're the least bit inclined to find an excuse to quit, there's always one right there.
But if you lack commitment, chances are it will have been hurting you long before you actually quit. Everyone who deals with startups knows how important commitment is, so if they sense you're ambivalent, they won't give you much attention. If you lack commitment, you'll just find that for some mysterious reason good things happen to your competitors but not to you. If you lack commitment, it will seem to you that you're unlucky.
Whereas if you're determined to stick around, people will pay attention to you, because odds are they'll have to deal with you later. Whereas a PhD dissertation is extremely unlikely to.
For some reason, the more a project has to count as research, the less likely it is to be something that could be turned into a startup. Whereas when students or professors build something as a side-project, they automatically gravitate toward solving users' problems — perhaps even with an additional energy that comes from being freed from the constraints of research. Competition Because a good idea should seem obvious, when you have one you'll tend to feel that you're late.
Don't let that deter you. Worrying that you're late is one of the signs of a good idea. Ten minutes of searching the web will usually settle the question.
Even if you find someone else working on the same thing, you're probably not too late. It's exceptionally rare for startups to be killed by competitors — so rare that you can almost discount the possibility. So unless you discover a competitor with the sort of lock-in that would prevent users from choosing you, don't discard the idea. If you're uncertain, ask users. The question of whether you're too late is subsumed by the question of whether anyone urgently needs what you plan to make.
If you have something that no competitor does and that some subset of users urgently need, you have a beachhead. Or more importantly, who's in it: if the beachhead consists of people doing something lots more people will be doing in the future, then it's probably big enough no matter how small it is.
For example, if you're building something differentiated from competitors by the fact that it works on phones, but it only works on the newest phones, that's probably a big enough beachhead. Err on the side of doing things where you'll face competitors. Inexperienced founders usually give competitors more credit than they deserve. Whether you succeed depends far more on you than on your competitors.
So better a good idea with competitors than a bad one without. You don't need to worry about entering a "crowded market" so long as you have a thesis about what everyone else in it is overlooking. In fact that's a very promising starting point.
Google was that type of idea. Your thesis has to be more precise than "we're going to make an x that doesn't suck" though. You have to be able to phrase it in terms of something the incumbents are overlooking. Best of all is when you can say that they didn't have the courage of their convictions, and that your plan is what they'd have done if they'd followed through on their own insights.
Google was that type of idea too. The search engines that preceded them shied away from the most radical implications of what they were doing — particularly that the better a job they did, the faster users would leave.
A crowded market is actually a good sign, because it means both that there's demand and that none of the existing solutions are good enough. A startup can't hope to enter a market that's obviously big and yet in which they have no competitors.
So any startup that succeeds is either going to be entering a market with existing competitors, but armed with some secret weapon that will get them all the users like Google , or entering a market that looks small but which will turn out to be big like Microsoft.
Most programmers wish they could start a startup by just writing some brilliant code, pushing it to a server, and having users pay them lots of money. They'd prefer not to deal with tedious problems or get involved in messy ways with the real world. Which is a reasonable preference, because such things slow you down.
But this preference is so widespread that the space of convenient startup ideas has been stripped pretty clean. If you let your mind wander a few blocks down the street to the messy, tedious ideas, you'll find valuable ones just sitting there waiting to be implemented. The schlep filter is so dangerous that I wrote a separate essay about the condition it induces, which I called schlep blindness. I gave Stripe as an example of a startup that benefited from turning off this filter, and a pretty striking example it is.
Thousands of programmers were in a position to see this idea; thousands of programmers knew how painful it was to process payments before Stripe. But when they looked for startup ideas they didn't see this one, because unconsciously they shrank from having to deal with payments. And dealing with payments is a schlep for Stripe, but not an intolerable one.
In fact they might have had net less pain; because the fear of dealing with payments kept most people away from this idea, Stripe has had comparatively smooth sailing in other areas that are sometimes painful, like user acquisition.
They didn't have to try very hard to make themselves heard by users, because users were desperately waiting for what they were building. The unsexy filter is similar to the schlep filter, except it keeps you from working on problems you despise rather than ones you fear. We overcame this one to work on Viaweb. There were interesting things about the architecture of our software, but we weren't interested in ecommerce per se. We could see the problem was one that needed to be solved though.
Turning off the schlep filter is more important than turning off the unsexy filter, because the schlep filter is more likely to be an illusion. And even to the degree it isn't, it's a worse form of self-indulgence. Starting a successful startup is going to be fairly laborious no matter what. Even if the product doesn't entail a lot of schleps, you'll still have plenty dealing with investors, hiring and firing people, and so on.
So if there's some idea you think would be cool but you're kept away from by fear of the schleps involved, don't worry: any sufficiently good idea will have as many. The unsexy filter, while still a source of error, is not as entirely useless as the schlep filter. If you're at the leading edge of a field that's changing rapidly, your ideas about what's sexy will be somewhat correlated with what's valuable in practice.
Particularly as you get older and more experienced. Plus if you find an idea sexy, you'll work on it more enthusiastically. Sometimes you need an idea now. For example, if you're working on a startup and your initial idea turns out to be bad.
For the rest of this essay I'll talk about tricks for coming up with startup ideas on demand. Although empirically you're better off using the organic strategy, you could succeed this way. You just have to be more disciplined. When you use the organic method, you don't even notice an idea unless it's evidence that something is truly missing. But when you make a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, you have to replace this natural constraint with self-discipline. You'll see a lot more ideas, most of them bad, so you need to be able to filter them.
One of the biggest dangers of not using the organic method is the example of the organic method. Organic ideas feel like inspirations. There are a lot of stories about successful startups that began when the founders had what seemed a crazy idea but "just knew" it was promising.
When you feel that about an idea you've had while trying to come up with startup ideas, you're probably mistaken. When searching for ideas, look in areas where you have some expertise. If you're a database expert, don't build a chat app for teenagers unless you're also a teenager. Maybe it's a good idea, but you can't trust your judgment about that, so ignore it. There have to be other ideas that involve databases, and whose quality you can judge. Do you find it hard to come up with good ideas involving databases?
That's because your expertise raises your standards. Your ideas about chat apps are just as bad, but you're giving yourself a Dunning-Kruger pass in that domain. The place to start looking for ideas is things you need. There must be things you need. If someone made x we'd buy it in a second.
You know there's demand, and people don't say that about things that are impossible to build. More generally, try asking yourself whether there's something unusual about you that makes your needs different from most other people's. You're probably not the only one. It's especially good if you're different in a way people will increasingly be. If you're changing ideas, one unusual thing about you is the idea you'd previously been working on.
Did you discover any needs while working on it? Several well-known startups began this way. Hotmail began as something its founders wrote to talk about their previous startup idea while they were working at their day jobs.
Some of the most valuable new ideas take root first among people in their teens and early twenties. And while young founders are at a disadvantage in some respects, they're the only ones who really understand their peers.
It would have been very hard for someone who wasn't a college student to start Facebook. So if you're a young founder under 23 say , are there things you and your friends would like to do that current technology won't let you?
The next best thing to an unmet need of your own is an unmet need of someone else. Try talking to everyone you can about the gaps they find in the world.
There was something missing. And yet the company they worked for is considered a good one, and from what I overheard of their conversation, they seemed smart enough.
In fact, they seemed to be from one of the more prestigious groups within the company. So why did it seem there was something odd about them? The guys on the scavenger hunt looked like the programmers I was used to, but they were employees instead of founders. And it was startling how different they seemed. So what, you may say. So I happen to know a subset of programmers who are especially ambitious.
Of course less ambitious people will seem different. But the difference between the programmers I saw in the cafe and the ones I was used to wasn't just a difference of degree. Something seemed wrong. I think it's not so much that there's something special about founders as that there's something missing in the lives of employees. I think startup founders, though statistically outliers, are actually living in a way that's more natural for humans.
I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. He later gained fame for his essays, which he posts to his personal website, paulgraham. Essay subjects range from "Beating the Averages",  which compares Lisp to other programming languages and introduced the hypothetical programming language Blub , to "Why Nerds are Unpopular",  a discussion of nerd life in high school.
In , Graham announced that he was working on a new dialect of Lisp named Arc.
It's impossibly unlikely that this is the exact moment when technological progress stops. Nothing is more likely to make it close. In fact that's a very promising starting point. If Mark Zuckerberg had built something that could only ever have appealed to Harvard students, it would not have been a good startup idea.
Few non-programmers grasped that in , but the programmers had seen what GUIs had done for desktop computers.
One thing all startups have in common is that they can't force anyone to do anything. Microsoft was a well when they made Altair Basic. For example, if you're working on a startup and your initial idea turns out to be bad.
Structurally the idea is stone soup: you post a sign saying "this is the place for people interested in x," and all those people show up and you make money from them. Initially they had a much narrower idea. If you're changing ideas, one unusual thing about you is the idea you'd previously been working on. Microsoft was a well when they made Altair Basic. Notes [ 1 ] This form of bad idea has been around as long as the web.
By compressing the dull but necessary task of making a living into the smallest possible time, you show respect for life, and there is something grand about that. That's for suckers. Users hate bugs, but they don't seem to mind a minimal version 1, if there's more coming soon.
What you need to do is turn off the filters that usually prevent you from seeing them.