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When to Startup

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@j_jason_bellJason Bell

I’ve had lots of ideas over the past few years. I’ve pursued some of them and learned a lot. I realized a couple of things about when to start taking the next steps on an idea. Here are three conditions. Each one is enough by itself to justify taking the next steps on an idea, which is typically an inquiry into feasibility.

  1. It meets an important need and has a clear path to monetization
  2. It’s really cheap to test
  3. It motivates you intrinsically enough to pursue it regardless of the outcome

Bonus points for all three. Sometimes I’ve made the mistake of thinking my idea was in 1 when it wasn’t really. One idea in particular wasn’t in 1 and didn’t have 2 or 3, so it died. Ideas in category 1 are tricky that way.

Usually the best thing to do is just ensure you have 2. Then you don’t need to worry about whether it’s 1. If the idea is in 3, it’ll be obvious.

Some examples. I place Dropbox in category 1. Drew Houston’s application to Y Combinator, a well-known incubator, illustrates this. His answer to what Dropbox is:

Dropbox synchronizes files across your/your team’s computers. It’s much better than uploading or email, because it’s automatic, integrated into Windows, and fits into the way you already work. There’s also a web interface, and the files are securely backed up to Amazon S3. Dropbox is kind of like taking the best elements of subversion, trac and rsync and making them “just work” for the average individual or team. Hackers have access to these tools, but normal people don’t.

Houston’s answer to how he’ll make money:

The current plan is a freemium approach, where we give away free 1GB accounts and charge for additional storage (maybe ~$5/mo or less for 10GB for individuals and team plans that start at maybe $20/mo.). It’s hard to get consumers to pay for things, but fortunately small/medium businesses already pay for solutions that are subsets of what Dropbox does and are harder to use. There will be tiered pricing for business accounts (upper tiers will retain more older versions of documents, have branded extranets for secure file sharing with clients/partners, etc., and an ‘enterprise’ plan that features, well, a really high price.)

For category 2, I’ll use one of my own. I wanted to start a pillow subscription service. It definitely didn’t fall into category 1, as everyone I know told me. It clearly also didn’t fall into category 3. But it was so cheap to test that I went ahead and did it. My friends had leftover time on a Squarespace account. I made a logo using gravit.io. I found a supplier of pillows on Alibaba.com. I used Indiegogo to launch a campaign around the idea. My friend made the video, another friend starred in it. I posted on my social accounts and asked people to share it, I got around 800 visitors. Nobody converted into a customer (except for some friends and family). On the one hand, it had a low chance of success even in theory (my wife warned me of this all along). On the other hand, the total cost to test it was $30 for a domain name, and a few hours making the campaign and website. So why not do it? If it had worked, it would have been fantastic in so many ways.

For category 3, I’ll use Elon Musk. This quote from Ashlee Vance, who wrote a biography of Musk, sums it up for me:

For most people, even if they’re a really passionate CEO, it’s still a job. But for Elon, it’s somewhere between a life-or-death struggle and a war.

Musk has said that Tesla would be a success to him if it made the big manufacturers jump into electric cars. At this point, it seems Tesla might be able to hang on (though sentiment seems to change daily), so maybe it’s a moot point. But at one time, Musk’s intrinsic motivation for working on Tesla allowed him to get through all of the doubt. If he had thought Tesla was in category 1 or 2, there is no way he would have made it through.

These conditions have helped me a great deal, I hope they help you too.

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