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Three “frightening” start-up ideas, and how to approach them

Monday, 12 March 2012 | By Michelle Hammond

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham says ambitious start-up ideas can be “frightening” due to the incredible effort they require, urging entrepreneurs to approach such ideas in an oblique fashion.


In an essay title ‘Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas’, Graham argues that start-up ideas with the most disruptive potential can be frightening due to the sheer level of ambition they require.


“The biggest start-up ideas are terrifying. And not just because they’d be a lot of work,” Graham wrote.


“The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you’d have enough ambition to carry them through.”

“You’d expect big start-up 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.”


Graham has identified seven “frightening” start-up ideas that “could make you a billionaire”. StartupSmart selects three of the best:


1. A new search engine


“Making a new search engine means competing with Google, and recently I’ve noticed some cracks in their fortress,” Graham said.


“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.”


According to Graham, 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,” he said.


“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.”


“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.”


2. Replace email


According to Graham, email was not designed to be used in the way it is used now, insisting it is not a messaging protocol but a to-do list, albeit a “disastrously bad” to-do list.


“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 to-do list protocol, not a messaging protocol,” he said.


“As a to-do list protocol, the new protocol should give more power to the recipient than email does. I want there to be more restrictions on what someone can put on my to-do list.”


Graham said this is “one of those ideas that’s like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object”.


“On one hand, entrenched protocols are impossible to replace. On the other, it seems unlikely that people in 100 years will still be living in the same email hell we do now,” he said.


“If email is going to get replaced eventually, why not now?”


“Whatever you build, make it fast… If you made something no better than Gmail, but fast, that alone would let you start to pull users away from Gmail.”

3. The next Steve Jobs


Graham said while Apple’s revenues may continue to increase despite the marked absence of Steve Jobs, “there will be no more great new stuff beyond whatever’s currently in the pipeline”.


“If Apple’s not going to make the next iPad, who is? None of the existing players. None of them are run by product visionaries, and…you can’t seem to get those by hiring them,” he said.


“Empirically, the way you get a product visionary as CEO is for him to found the company and not get fired. So the company that creates the next wave of hardware is probably going to have to be a start-up.”


Graham said while it sounds “preposterously ambitious” for a start-up to try to become as big as Apple, Apple itself was once a start-up.


“Plus, a start-up taking on this problem now has an advantage the original Apple didn’t: the example of Apple. Steve Jobs has shown us what’s possible,” Graham said.


“If a new company led boldly into the future of hardware, users would follow. The CEO of that company, the ‘next Steve Jobs’, might not measure up to Steve Jobs. But he wouldn’t have to.”


“He’d just have to do a better job than Samsung and HP and Nokia, and that seems pretty doable.”


In conclusion


“If you want to take on a problem as big as the ones I’ve discussed, don’t make a direct frontal attack on it,” Graham said.


“Don’t say, for example, that you’re going to replace email. If you do that, you raise too many expectations. Your employees and investors will constantly be asking ‘Are we there yet?’.”


“Empirically, the way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things… [But] it’s not just for other people that you need to start small. You need to for your own sake.”


“Don’t try to construct the future like a building, because your current blueprint is almost certainly mistaken. Start with something you know works and, when you expand, expand westward.”


“The popular image of the visionary is someone with a clear view of the future, but empirically it may be better to have a blurry one.”