Deciding on an Idea
by Seni Sangrujee on June 29, 2011"Which Idea to Work On?"
I went to a hackathon over the weekend and must have had this conversation with 5 different people. I'm not talking about the idea to work on for the hackathon itself, but the idea to work on for a startup/bootstrapped biz/side project beyond the hackathon.
I consider hackathon ideas to be completely different animals from startup ideas. For a hackathon demo, the idea really depends on your goal, whether you're trying to win a prize, collaborate on a throwaway project as a way of evaluating potential cofounders, or just trying to have fun. Personally I like to go to hackathons for the mental exercise of a coding sprint in an area tangentially related to where I spend most of my days, or to recharge and get motivated again by hacking with a community, or sometimes I go just to catch up with old friends.
But during the event, while taking a break from coding, the topic often turned to startup ideas. The pattern I keep noticing is that people have so many ideas that they're unwilling to commit to one of them and end up accomplishing nothing. I encounter this a lot, not just at hackathons, but at meetups or grabbing a beer or coffee with ex-coworkers or entrepreneurial friends.
I admit, I'm just like everyone else in Silicon Valley, with a million ideas that pop into my head everyday. I've kept this massive text file called ideas.txt just to record them for over a decade and sometimes run to my laptop in the middle of the night when I can't sleep and my mind is racing about my latest, greatest idea.
Back to being torn between too many ideas, it pisses me off to see this happen over and over again. In my head I'm thinking: "Dude, you're twice the coder that I am, why aren't you kicking ass out there with that idea you're obviously passionate about. I remember when we had coffee when the original iPhone launched, and we were like, "This is a big deal and most people don't even realize it yet. Huge opportunity for early players. Same thing when Facebook apps launched." Some of these guys I've known way back from the dotcom days when we were still going in circles back then.
For some folks I get the feeling that they need some sort of validation that it's a good idea either from investors or peers. I haven't found this to be the best gauge living in the echo chamber of Silicon Valley. There's a tendency here for ideas that cater toward the early adopter, highly-technical, typical Silicon Valley person, where I like to target a broader, general audience.
Other people seem to be reluctant to put something out there out of fear that it will fail. If an idea only exists in the mind it still has unlimited upside.
I used to have this problem of inaction too, and ended up going nowhere by spinning my wheels trying to decide which idea I should focus on. Here's how I got past that…
Let the Marketplace DecideWhat I do is take the top idea on my list, the idea that keeps me up at night, the one that keeps coming back to me even after I get distracted by other transient ideas. I go through all the User Stories in my head of how someone would use the app or service and pick the most compelling use case.
I take that single use case and make a Minimum Viable Product out of it. And release it. That's it.
After the app/website is released, a few different scenarios usually emerge:
1. The best case is that users love it. When that happens I usually get a bunch of emails from users asking me to add features. The funny thing is that the features that are requested often aren't the same ones that I had pictured for my app in the first place. So they've now saved me the time I would have wasted implementing those features that no one wanted. One thing I really hate is wasted effort. I remember working at a lot of startups in the 90s where were would spend an insane number of man-hours on a feature and then find out that no one ended up using it.
(In this case, for an app with good momentum, what I then do is take different actions at preset milestones (1,000 downloads, 5k, 25k, 100k, etc). That's a long topic and good subject for another post)
2. Another scenario is I get a crapload of bug reports. This isn't surprising to me as most initial releases are full of bugs. I actually look at this as good news because if someone sends me an email that something is broken that means that they actually care enough about the app to spend the time contacting me and want to see it improved. This means the idea has potential.
3. Finally, there's the case when I get no emails.
a) If I get no emails and there are sizable downloads, I take a hard look at the app and see if I botched the critical "First Experience" or if it's just not that compelling an idea/market.
b) If the app isn't getting any downloads at all, I analyze my discoverability techniques and see if the competitors for this app are getting all the downloads or if users just aren't interested in this area at all.
But during this whole time, after the initial release and while I'm studying how people are using the MVP, I've moved on to implement the next idea on my list.
I'm mostly talking about mobile apps here, where the appstores are set up for and almost encourage this kind of experimentation. As of Summer 2011, it's still a hit-based environment and the various platforms are still touting the number of apps in their stores. Obviously, cloud or hardware or enterprise ideas get a different approach.
What I'm Looking ForThe main reason I take this approach is to see if I'm even in the right ballpark with an idea, or if I need to recalibrate the concept and pivot, or cut my losses.
The initial MVP release I'm talking about is not just a simple, non-functional Landing Page disguised as an app, it's a fully-functional, thought-out app, just streamlined to hone in on the most compelling use case, the Raison d'être for the app even down the road after many added features and updates.
This works especially well in the mobile space where a bloated app with too many features can be too confusing and makes for a terrible First Experience. This way the first batch of users (say the first 500 - 2,000 users) can start with a simple app and grow with the app as the feature set gets fleshed out. Many of those users might have been turned off getting bombarded with a massive feature set at the outset.
Another thing I'm looking for is to connect with early adopters/passionate users in a particular niche. Often after an initial release, I'll get bombarded with emails from people even more passionate about an idea than I am, and that's when I know I'm onto something interesting. These folks end up driving the direction of the app better than I could do by myself.
I live in Silicon Valley and most of the people I know are engineers or in technology, but my target audience is completely different for most of my ideas. I don't have an easy way to get out there and start a dialog with my customers, so this way they can find me and we can build this together.
WHAT DO YOU REALLY HAVE TO LOSE?As for feeling embarrassed launching something and failing, it doesn't bother me. What I often find when I launch something that never gets traction is that there are still a few people that really love the app and kind of adopt it as their personal playground. They never contact me or need any support or use up much bandwidth, but continue to use the app every day.
What I DO find embarrassing is wasting investor money on an unproven idea like we did with a lot of startups in the dotcom era. I remember some of the sites we build that were way overengineered and we ended up with fewer users than employees.
So the main thing you have to lose is the developer fee, $25 for the Android Market or $100 annually for the App Store. For me the most valuable thing is time, so those fees are minimal compared to the potential cost of chasing an unwinnable idea.