How to Get Startup Ideas

At YC we're excited when we meet startups working on things that we could imagine know-it-alls on forums dismissing as toys. To us that's positive evidence an idea is good.


If you can afford to take a long view (and arguably you can't afford not to), you can turn "Live in the future and build what's missing" into something even better:Live in the future and build what seems interesting.


School


That's what I'd advise college students to do, rather than trying to learn about "entrepreneurship." "Entrepreneurship" is something you learn best by doing it. The examples of the most successful founders make that clear. What you should be spending your time on in college is ratcheting yourself into the future. College is an incomparable opportunity to do that. What a waste to sacrifice an opportunity to solve the hard part of starting a startup—becoming the sort of person who can have organic startup ideas—by spending time learning about the easy part. Especially since you won't even really learn about it, any more than you'd learn about sex in a class. All you'll learn is the words for things.


The clash of domains is a particularly fruitful source of ideas. If you know a lot about programming and you start learning about some other field, you'll probably see problems that software could solve. In fact, you're doubly likely to find good problems in another domain: (a) the inhabitants of that domain are not as likely as software people to have already solved their problems with software, and (b) since you come into the new domain totally ignorant, you don't even know what the status quo is to take it for granted.


So if you're a CS major and you want to start a startup, instead of taking a class on entrepreneurship you're better off taking a class on, say, genetics. Or better still, go work for a biotech company. CS majors normally get summer jobs at computer hardware or software companies. But if you want to find startup ideas, you might do better to get a summer job in some unrelated field. [8]


Or don't take any extra classes, and just build things. It's no coincidence that Microsoft and Facebook both got started in January. At Harvard that is (or was) Reading Period, when students have no classes to attend because they're supposed to be studying for finals. [9]


But don't feel like you have to build things that will become startups. That's premature optimization. Just build things. Preferably with other students. It's not just the classes that make a university such a good place to crank oneself into the future. You're also surrounded by other people trying to do the same thing. If you work together with them on projects, you'll end up producing not just organic ideas, but organic ideas with organic founding teams—and that, empirically, is the best combination.


Beware of research. If an undergrad writes something all his friends start using, it's quite likely to represent a good startup idea. 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. [10] I think the reason is that the subset of ideas that count as research is so narrow that it's unlikely that a project that satisfied that constraint would also satisfy the orthogonal constraint of solving users' problems. 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. [11]


The question then is whether that beachhead is big enough. 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). [12]


Filters


There are two more filters you'll need to turn off if you want to notice startup ideas: the unsexy filter and the schlep filter.


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. [13]


Recipes


While the best way to discover startup ideas is to become the sort of person who has them and then build whatever interests you, sometimes you don't have that luxury. 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 mustbe things you need. [14]


One good trick is to ask yourself whether in your previous job you ever found yourself saying "Why doesn't someone make x? If someone made x we'd buy it in a second." If you can think of any x people said that about, you probably have an idea. 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. [15]


A particularly promising way to be unusual is to be young. 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. What's missing? What would they like to do that they can't? What's tedious or annoying, particularly in their work? Let the conversation get general; don't be trying too hard to find startup ideas. You're just looking for something to spark a thought. Maybe you'll notice a problem they didn't consciously realize they had, because you know how to solve it.


When you find an unmet need that isn't your own, it may be somewhat blurry at first. The person who needs something may not know exactly what they need. In that case I often recommend that founders act like consultants—that they do what they'd do if they'd been retained to solve the problems of this one user. People's problems are similar enough that nearly all the code you write this way will be reusable, and whatever isn't will be a small price to start out certain that you've reached the bottom of the well. [16]


One way to ensure you do a good job solving other people's problems is to make them your own. When Rajat Suri of E la Carte decided to write software for restaurants, he got a job as a waiter to learn how restaurants worked. That may seem like taking things to extremes, but startups are extreme. We love it when founders do such things.


In fact, one strategy I recommend to people who need a new idea is not merely to turn off their schlep and unsexy filters, but to seek out ideas that are unsexy or involve schleps. Don't try to start Twitter. Those ideas are so rare that you can't find them by looking for them. Make something unsexy that people will pay you for.


A good trick for bypassing the schlep and to some extent the unsexy filter is to ask what you wish someone else would build, so that you could use it. What would you pay for right now?


Since startups often garbage-collect broken companies and industries, it can be a good trick to look for those that are dying, or deserve to, and try to imagine what kind of company would profit from their demise. For example, journalism is in free fall at the moment. But there may still be money to be made from something like journalism. What sort of company might cause people in the future to say "this replaced journalism" on some axis?


But imagine asking that in the future, not now. When one company or industry replaces another, it usually comes in from the side. So don't look for a replacement for x; look for something that people will later say turned out to be a replacement for x. And be imaginative about the axis along which the replacement occurs. Traditional journalism, for example, is a way for readers to get information and to kill time, a way for writers to make money and to get attention, and a vehicle for several different types of advertising. It could be replaced on any of these axes (it has already started to be on most).


When startups consume incumbents, they usually start by serving some small but important market that the big players ignore. It's particularly good if there's an admixture of disdain in the big players' attitude, because that often misleads them. For example, after Steve Wozniak built the computer that became the Apple I, he felt obliged to give his then-employer Hewlett-Packard the option to produce it. Fortunately for him, they turned it down, and one of the reasons they did was that it used a TV for a monitor, which seemed intolerably d�lass� to a high-end hardware company like HP was at the time. [17]


Are there groups of scruffy but sophisticated users like the early microcomputer "hobbyists" that are currently being ignored by the big players? A startup with its sights set on bigger things can often capture a small market easily by expending an effort that wouldn't be justified by that market alone.


Similarly, since the most successful startups generally ride some wave bigger than themselves, it could be a good trick to look for waves and ask how one could benefit from them. The prices of gene sequencing and 3D printing are both experiencing Moore's Law-like declines. What new things will we be able to do in the new world we'll have in a few years? What are we unconsciously ruling out as impossible that will soon be possible?


Organic


But talking about looking explicitly for waves makes it clear that such recipes are plan B for getting startup ideas. Looking for waves is essentially a way to simulate the organic method. If you're at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you don't have to look for waves; you are the wave.


Finding startup ideas is a subtle business, and that's why most people who try fail so miserably. It doesn't work well simply to try to think of startup ideas. If you do that, you get bad ones that sound dangerously plausible. The best approach is more indirect: if you have the right sort of background, good startup ideas will seem obvious to you. But even then, not immediately. It takes time to come across situations where you notice something missing. And often these gaps won't seem to be ideas for companies, just things that would be interesting to build. Which is why it's good to have the time and the inclination to build things just because they're interesting.


Live in the future and build what seems interesting. Strange as it sounds, that's the real recipe.


Notes


[1] This form of bad idea has been around as long as the web. It was common in the 1990s, except then people who had it used to say they were going to create a portal for x instead of a social network for x. 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. What lures founders into this sort of idea are statistics about the millions of people who might be interested in each type of x. What they forget is that any given person might have 20 affinities by this standard, and no one is going to visit 20 different communities regularly.


[2] I'm not saying, incidentally, that I know for sure a social network for pet owners is a bad idea. I know it's a bad idea the way I know randomly generated DNA would not produce a viable organism. The set of plausible sounding startup ideas is many times larger than the set of good ones, and many of the good ones don't even sound that plausible. So if all you know about a startup idea is that it sounds plausible, you have to assume it's bad.


[3] More precisely, the users' need has to give them sufficient activation energy to start using whatever you make, which can vary a lot. For example, the activation energy for enterprise software sold through traditional channels is very high, so you'd have to be a lot better to get users to switch. Whereas the activation energy required to switch to a new search engine is low. Which in turn is why search engines are so much better than enterprise software.


[4] This gets harder as you get older. While the space of ideas doesn't have dangerous local maxima, the space of careers does. There are fairly high walls between most of the paths people take through life, and the older you get, the higher the walls become.


[5] It was also obvious to us that the web was going to be a big deal. Few non-programmers grasped that in 1995, but the programmers had seen what GUIs had done for desktop computers.


[6] Maybe it would work to have this second self keep a journal, and each night to make a brief entry listing the gaps and anomalies you'd noticed that day. Not startup ideas, just the raw gaps and anomalies.


[7] Sam Altman points out that taking time to come up with an idea is not merely a better strategy in an absolute sense, but also like an undervalued stock in that so few founders do it.


There's comparatively little competition for the best ideas, because few founders are willing to put in the time required to notice them. Whereas there is a great deal of competition for mediocre ideas, because when people make up startup ideas, they tend to make up the same ones.


[8] For the computer hardware and software companies, summer jobs are the first phase of the recruiting funnel. But if you're good you can skip the first phase. If you're good you'll have no trouble getting hired by these companies when you graduate, regardless of how you spent your summers.


[9] The empirical evidence suggests that if colleges want to help their students start startups, the best thing they can do is leave them alone in the right way.


[10] I'm speaking here of IT startups; in biotech things are different.


[11] This is an instance of a more general rule: focus on users, not competitors. The most important information about competitors is what you learn via users anyway.


[12] In practice most successful startups have elements of both. And you can describe each strategy in terms of the other by adjusting the boundaries of what you call the market. But it's useful to consider these two ideas separately.


[13] I almost hesitate to raise that point though. Startups are businesses; the point of a business is to make money; and with that additional constraint, you can't expect you'll be able to spend all your time working on what interests you most.


[14] The need has to be a strong one. You can retroactively describe any made-up idea as something you need. But do you really need that recipe site or local event aggregator as much as Drew Houston needed Dropbox, or Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia needed Airbnb?


Quite often at YC I find myself asking founders "Would you use this thing yourself, if you hadn't written it?" and you'd be surprised how often the answer is no.


[15] Paul Buchheit points out that trying to sell something bad can be a source of better ideas:


"The best technique I've found for dealing with YC companies that have bad ideas is to tell them to go sell the product ASAP (before wasting time building it). Not only do they learn that nobody wants what they are building, they very often come back with a real idea that they discovered in the process of trying to sell the bad idea."


[16] Here's a recipe that might produce the next Facebook, if you're college students. If you have a connection to one of the more powerful sororities at your school, approach the queen bees thereof and offer to be their personal IT consultants, building anything they could imagine needing in their social lives that didn't already exist. Anything that got built this way would be very promising, because such users are not just the most demanding but also the perfect point to spread from.


I have no idea whether this would work.


[17] And the reason it used a TV for a monitor is that Steve Wozniak started out by solving his own problems. He, like most of his peers, couldn't afford a monitor.


Thanks to Sam Altman, Mike Arrington, Paul Buchheit, John Collison, Patrick Collison, Garry Tan, and Harj Taggar for reading drafts of this, and Marc Andreessen, Joe Gebbia, Reid Hoffman, Shel Kaphan, Mike Moritz and Kevin Systrom for answering my questions about startup history.