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Pulling The Thread

I've been thinking about new startup ideas a lot recently. And when talking about the process I find myself constantly referring to Chris Dixon's excellent post, the idea maze. It's excellent and also worth reading the much longer source material from Balaji as well.

But while I love the idea maze, imo it's incomplete. It makes sense, but it also doesn't map to my own experiences as a founder. While the idea maze was a useful concept, you first have to get to the idea maze. And you get there not by thinking about a bunch of ideas and subjecting them each to the idea maze, that would take too long. Ideas need to be worthy of the work the idea maze requires. And to find out which ideas are worthy, you have to first start by just pulling on a thread of an idea and seeing where it takes you.

My main knock on the idea maze is that it feels too neat. A maze is structured and well defined, a game with rules, a start and a finish. My recollection about startup life was always much messier and haphazard. Take Balaji's description of the idea maze:

In other words: a good idea means a bird’s eye view of the idea maze, understanding all the permutations of the idea and the branching of the decision tree, gaming things out to the end of each scenario. Anyone can point out the entrance to the maze, but few can think through all the branches. If you can verbally and then graphically diagram a complex decision tree with many alternatives, explaining why your particular plan to navigate the maze is superior to the ten past companies that fell into pits and twenty current competitors lost in the maze, you’ll have gone a long way towards proving that you actually have a good idea that others did not and do not have.

It makes total sense. The only problem is that this is how I would describe what finding great ideas is like I were a VC observing this process. A story about the idea maze is the end result of a messy process. Only ex-post can you go back and see the maze you just went through and describe all the twists and turns.

In my experience it starts out much more like just simple meandering and exploring. You pick an idea you like and then you pull on it. It may be a great idea, but it might not be. It may lead you to a totally different area that is also worth exploring. And once you pull the thread and unearth something interesting then you can use the idea maze to run through it and make sure it's a good one.

Imo the canonical story is Slack (or really just Stuart since he's done this twice now). Stuart built an MMORPG, and then once that didn't work he eventually built a company out of their internal comms tool. The AirBnB story is similar, stumbling on the idea as a result of the founders trying to pay their bills. Iconic companies have started by pulling on a thread and then seeing where it goes. And only once you get somewhere worthwhile you then run through the idea maze to see if it's good or not.

A sidebar but Balaji's post is excellent but these points on different views on where good ideas come from stood out to me:

From Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com on execution being the driver:

I have to sit ‘em down for an hour and say, ‘No, I don’t have this house because I invented Ethernet. I have this house because I went to Cleveland and Schenectady and places like that. I sold Ethernet for a decade. That’s why I have this house. It had nothing to do with that brainstorm in 1973.

From pmarca on how markets drive everything:

Personally, I’ll take the third position – I’ll assert that market is the most important factor in a startup’s success or failure. Why? In a great market – a market with lots of real potential customers – the market pulls product out of the startup. The market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled, by the first viable product that comes along. The product doesn’t need to be great; it just has to basically work. And, the market doesn’t care how good the team is, as long as the team can produce that viable product.

So which is most important: product/idea, execution/team, or market? From Balaji:

You can think of these things on a continuum. Ideas range in quality from “a social network for dogs” to “Maxwell’s equations”, and execution ranges in quality from “I’ll start a company some day” to “sold or IPO’d company