Worthwhile ideas and how to have them

There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played. - Thoreau (Walden)

Ideas matter.

I like talking to people outside of the tech industry. These days, a lot of them tell me that they'd love to be a founder. It's become very cool to be a founder, because we see them in the media so often. Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Spiegel, Kalanick. The biggest barrier to becoming a founder, people tell me, is that "they don't have an idea." The public's idea of invention/innovation seems to be that everything follows from that instance of inspiration.

My first job in venture was as an analyst with Atlas (now Accomplice) in 2007. The counter-intuitive orthodoxy then was: ideas are a dime a dozen. It's all about team and execution and timing. The best argument I ever heard for that was: if ideas were valuable, there'd be a big market for them. And there isn't.

Of course, the truth is integral. Ideas do matter, but not the way people think. Most startups start out doing one thing, but end up doing something else within a short space of time. But there's a lot of value in where you start.

Compulsion is best. If you can build something in a segment you're obsessed with, go with that. It won't get boring and no matter what happens, it will have been worthwhile.

The common advice is to focus on a problem. Preferably one that you are having. But most people in the developed world have fairly trivial problems. That's one of the reasons we are seeing so many trivial companies. Which is odd given that massively important problems abound. Start at the environmental crisis, or the crisis in faith and meaning, or the fact that over 70% of people hate their jobs.

Framing a problem as a question is good. Explore the segment and iterate. Come up with a partial solution. In my mind, that's how Facebook and Uber and Airbnb got to where they are. They started with small, well-defined but partial solutions. And then realized that the full answer would sustain a much bigger business.

The best such large market you can come up with is something that any internet user could use. Zero marginal costs of distribution meets global scale. Those continue to be the most exciting businesses for me. We are seeing too few of them at the moment.

Many VCs (including us) value domain expertise. But a fresh and naïve look at old industries often yields interesting ideas. Zen mind, beginner's mind (thanks, Shōgaku Shunryū). There's much less to unlearn if you're too stupid to know better.

Ideas don't spring up in a vacuum. Terry Pratchett had this concept of Inspiration Particles that sleet through the universe and hit people in the head as an explanation why several people often have the same idea at the same time. I think it's an evolutionary process. Previous selection begets new variation. It's often more revelation than inspiration.

The best places for new ideas in the US seem to be universities. I'm not sure why, but that's just not as common in Europe. Maybe it's the lack of dorms. Young hackers just screwing around are great crucibles of ideas. I joined the foundation board for the Humboldt University, one of the largest universities in Germany, to have this conversation in more depth.

In general it's good to surround yourself with smart people. Explore the edge cases of the problems that excite you. Frame your idea as a question so you get less pushback. Listen, learn, iterate. The main advantage you have as a startup is your speed of learning and iteration.

I thought that having a purpose is helpful, but have come to view it as essential. Purpose is the narrative of why you're doing what you're doing. It's helpful in the outside world, with investors, customers or regulators. But it's crucial when it comes to convincing brilliant people to join you on your journey and to get people to come to work every day with a spring in their step.

The best narrative I've ever heard in that respect is from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard in "Let my people go surfing." It's a book I enjoyed tremendously. My colleague Yacine said he'll write a post on it (here's his Medium - no pressure, Yacine). 

Ideas really do matter. And the way you approach them, too. What you devote your life to is one of the most important choices you can make. Honor yourself by making it something worthy of You.