Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas"

From Paul Graham:

Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas

March 2012

One of the more surprising things I've noticed while working on Y Combinator is how frightening the most ambitious startup ideas are. In this essay I'm going to demonstrate this phenomenon by describing some. Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.

Don't worry, it's not a sign of weakness. Arguably it's a sign of sanity. The biggest startup ideas are terrifying. And not just because they'd be a lot of work. The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you'd have enough ambition to carry them through.

There's a scene in Being John Malkovich where the nerdy hero encounters a very attractive, sophisticated woman. She says to him:

Here's the thing: If you ever got me, you wouldn't have a clue what to do with me.
That's what these ideas say to us.

This phenomenon is one of the most important things you can understand about startups. [1] You'd expect big startup ideas to be attractive, but actually they tend to repel you. And that has a bunch of consequences. It means these ideas are invisible to most people who try to think of startup ideas, because their subconscious filters them out. Even the most ambitious people are probably best off approaching them obliquely.

1. A New Search Engine

The best ideas are just on the right side of impossible. I don't know if this one is possible, but there are signs it might be. Making a new search engine means competing with Google, and recently I've noticed some cracks in their fortress.

The point when it became clear to me that Microsoft had lost their way was when they decided to get into the search business. That was not a natural move for Microsoft. They did it because they were afraid of Google, and Google was in the search business. But this meant (a) Google was now setting Microsoft's agenda, and (b) Microsoft's agenda consisted of stuff they weren't good at.

Microsoft : Google :: Google : Facebook.

That does not by itself mean there's room for a new search engine, but lately when using Google search I've found myself nostalgic for the old days, when Google was true to its own slightly aspy self. Google used to give me a page of the right answers, fast, with no clutter. Now the results seem inspired by the Scientologist principle that what's true is what's true for you. And the pages don't have the clean, sparse feel they used to. Google search results used to look like the output of a Unix utility. Now if I accidentally put the cursor in the wrong place, anything might happen.

The way to win here is to build the search engine all the hackers use. A search engine whose users consisted of the top 10,000 hackers and no one else would be in a very powerful position despite its small size, just as Google was when it was that search engine. And for the first time in over a decade the idea of switching seems thinkable to me.

Since anyone capable of starting this company is one of those 10,000 hackers, the route is at least straightforward: make the search engine you yourself want. Feel free to make it excessively hackerish. Make it really good for code search, for example. Would you like search queries to be Turing complete? Anything that gets you those 10,000 users is ipso facto good.

Don't worry if something you want to do will constrain you in the long term, because if you don't get that initial core of users, there won't be a long term. If you can just build something that you and your friends genuinely prefer to Google, you're already about 10% of the way to an IPO, just as Facebook was (though they probably didn't realize it) when they got all the Harvard undergrads.

2. Replace Email

Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now. Email is not a messaging protocol. It's a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and email is the way things get onto it. But it is a disastrously bad todo list.

I'm open to different types of solutions to this problem, but I suspect that tweaking the inbox is not enough, and that email has to be replaced with a new protocol. This new protocol should be a todo list protocol, not a messaging protocol, although there is a degenerate case where what someone wants you to do is: read the following text.

HT: Abnormal Returns