A great developer I once worked with was kvetching at lunch one day. He’d been working at a well-funded startup for about a year and had come to terms with the fact that the startup was really a pretty dumb idea. He’d wasted a year of his life and had a pile of stock options that weren’t very interesting. His last two jobs had been similar. He asked me a question that, at the time, I didn’t have a good answer for. “How can you possibly know when joining a startup if it’s going to be successful?” In other words, how can you spot a good startup idea?
Since I’ve announced that I’m moving on in the coming weeks/months, I’ve been bombarded with cool offers at existing startups, larger companies, and, of course, I’ve been pondering some of my own startup ideas. So his question which I didn’t really consider very carefully at the time is now one that I’m thinking a LOT about.
So without further ado, here is my “checklist for good startup ideas”. No startup will do great on every aspect of the checklist, but this allows me to put startups/products to a sniff test that I think is pretty darn useful. Note, this list is in rough order of importance.
- How deeply do you think the startup will effect people’s lives? Can you imagine them using it every day? Can you imagine them being royally pissed if they couldn’t use it? This can range from utility (gmail) to emotion (twitter), but if a product isn’t in the “I’d rather chew off my own arm than lose it” category for a meaningful percentage of it’s users, it should be a non-starter.
- Are the hypotheses that form the basis of the startup tractable? In other words, can test the idea(s) in a short period of time? I’ve talked about the importance of tractability before (hat tip, Ev Williams). Bottom line is that most initial hypotheses are wrong to varying degrees. Twitter was very tractable. Tesla is not. I’ll re-use the money quote from Fred Wilson: “…Of the 26 companies that I consider realized or effectively realized in my personal track record, 17 of them made complete transformations or partial transformations of their businesses between the time we invested and the time we sold. That means there a 2/3 chance you’ll have to significantly reinvent your business between the time you take a venture capital investment and when you exit your business.”
- How does the cost-of-acquisition, cost-of-goods-sold (COGS) and revenue-per-customer stack up? Most software startup have a pretty low COGS, so this question generally comes down to, “How much does it cost to buy a customer and how much revenue does that customer represent over their life?” This obviously requires a lot of guesswork early on, but experience is a helluva teacher here. If you haven’t been on the wrong side of this ratio a few times, find a mentor who has. Any way you slice it, you need to fine a “scalable, cost-effective way to get your customer’s attention”. I can’t count the number of startups that aimed squarely at small businesses or “prosumers” with sub-$100 price point and have no idea on how they’re going to buy a customer (other than word of mouth, SEM/SEO, and PR).
I love extremes here. Zynga, Twitter, and Facebook has nailed one extreme– their cost of acquisition is free and nearly infinitely scalable. If you can build a service that grows virally (free and growing customer acquisition), you can focus most of your attention on value creation and revenue-per-user. With a little success there and a little time to let the virus spread, and you can almost not help but succeed. I think it’s hard to overestimate the power of free marketing/customer acquisition.
There are certainly extremes on the other side. What do you think Oracle’s revenue per customer is? How much can they afford to “buy” a customer for? What about Groupon?
Pro Tip: If you’re raising angel or Series-A money and you say you’ll be using the proceeds for things like magazine ads and wrappers on busses, you’ve probably already lost.
- How MANY lives could you imagine touching in 5 years? This is different than asking about total addressable market (TAM). Craigslist started as a classified ads mailing list for San Francisco. Amazon started selling books. Have some imagination and consider what your company could morph into. Is it interesting enough to justify the opportunity cost and the fact that you’re looking at a drastically reduced salary for 2-5 years?
- Is it an invention or re-invention? Hats off to you inventors out there, but I strongly prefer an existing market to creating one from scratch. The companies whose equity I covet didn’t build anything NEW, they just built something BETTER (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Zynga etc). In short, the first mover advantage is a crock of shit (most of the time).
- Is it worth talking about? Can you tell a story about the product that would make a blogger say, “Holy crap– I could write a story around that that would get tons of links, tweets, and comments?” One of my favorite products is Visual Website Optimizer (it’s a brilliant A/B testing tool). The founder (a great product designer who I’ve had a few conversations with) sent out a barrage of emails to major tech bloggers and heard nothing but crickets (he appealed to Hacker News readers for advice– I think the discussion is interesting). His fundamental problem is that he doesn’t have a story that will drive links/tweets/comments/pageviews– all of the metrics that pro-bloggers care about. Oftentimes, clever PR people can create a story out of something that has nothing to do with the product (see: 37Signals & Zappos), but it certainly helps a lot if your product is funny, controversial, unusually useful, or inherently exhibitionist.
- Are you passionate about the end-game? This one is hard to rank. All of the points above assume you are a “mercenary” founder (maximizing for opportunity) rather than a “missionary” founder (passionate about a vision that keeps you awake at night). Great video on that point here. Regardless of whether your end game is a vision realized or a big pile of cash (or some combination thereof), you need to be passionate about it… You need to have something that powers you through the bumps in the road where a rational person would cut and run. Both motivations are dangerous, by the way. If you’re motivated by cash, you might have a hard time sticking through tough times when you realize what you’ve built might only be a single or a double. If you’re motivated by vision, you might not like the pivots your startup needs to take to survive/succeed.
- Is the market moving in the right direction? Can you imagine there being a LOT of growth and consolidation in the next 5-10 years? I just saw my first RedBox the other day (it’s a cool box outside of supermarkets that allow you to rent DVDs). They are currently on the wrong side of a market shift away from physical media– can you imagine people renting DVDs in 10 years? I think this one is particularly hard to get right (which is why it’s low on the list).
That’s my list. Am I missing something that’s on yours?