I happened to be hacking late at night on the same Harv-10 machine in the old CRCT machine room (now gone, replaced by the Gates/Ballmer cheese wedge building), during the period where Gates was building his 8080 assembler/linker/simulator and developing Basic using those tools. (I do remember teasing him about toy computers at the time.)
My impression was that he wasn't trying to actually use the Basic himself, but saw that for these hobbyist computers to make any headway, they were going to need a higher-level language. He was already a very proficient 4004/8008/8080 assembler hacker and a PDP-10 assembler whiz.
I.e., his Basic development was not organic but fairly coldly calculated as an obvious business effort.
(He was "yay close" to being expunged from Harvard (worse than being expelled) for using their research machines for profit, and he had to give back the $10K that MITS had advanced him. 'Twas a bit unfair, as I saw several different commercial efforts running off that same machine (all of them late-night denizens of the computer room like me), and no one ever squawked about them.)
Those are clearly worthless, and account for a big chunk of the endowment.
They just can't bring themselves to admit it yet.
[Edit] I guess I'm shedding crocodile tears for them. I've no love lost for my alma mater, which, while academically valuable, is really nothing more than a soulless multinational corporation. They long ago gave up any semblance of trying to actually educate the whole man.
Organic Startups have one huge advantage: They're significantly easier to build.
Organic Startups have one huge disadvantage: They're significantly easier to build.
The space for people-like-me startups is severely crowded due to an over-abundance of people scratching their own itch. On the other hand, markets that are the diametric opposite of silicon-valley-tech are ripe for the picking by any halfway competent team. Look at Club Penguin, acquired for $700M, all because they focused an "unsexy" niche.
The second type of startup is harder to build but it's not that much harder to build. More importantly, it's variably harder to build.
Some people are going to be naturals at it and not see what the big fuss is all about. Others will never have the necessary social intelligence. But the vast, vast majority of people will suck at it to begin with but then get better the more they try.
I've always been a big proponent of taking the road less taken. While every other uber-hacker is learning erlang & haskell, why not learn how to become better at designing for people who are not yourself?
Empirically that doesn't seem to be true. E.g. there were not a lot of other startups doing Facebook at the same time as Mark. A couple, but not a lot.
Probably the reason is the point I mentioned in the essay: most people ignore their itches because they don't seem good enough sources of ideas.
Ironically, if people start doing what I suggest, it could cause what you're claiming to become true. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it.
Actually, I'd say there were. Not "doing Facebook", but scratching the same itch Mark was, which is connecting students on campuses. Some of them failed, some went in different directions -- Facebook itself has grown into what it is over the years.
It's quite a Microsoft-esque tatic I think, i.e. of questionable morals, but potentially a great business move.
If you are aware of the background to the story, it seems like he gave the impression to two fellow Harvard students that he would help them build an internal dating site for Harvard, but some time into the project he decided to stop communicating with them and used the code for what would eventually become Facebook.
I believe all the club penguin founders had children so I'd say it probably qualified as an organic startup (in the sense pg uses the term)
When something proposed as a counterexample turns out on inspection to be a classic case, I consider that pretty good evidence for a model.
The other thing is that there is a continuum between yourself and random people: yourself - family - friends - coworkers - acquaintances - random people.
And so even if hackers had similar needs/wants (still doubtful to me), it's very unlikely that their family and friends would all also have similar needs.
Curiously, PG has mentioned this before in a few essays, but for some reason omits it here.
A central part of it is being able to put yourself in other's shoes. You can do that by already being in their shoes (designing for yourself), physically putting yourself in their shoes (becoming a direct marketer) or do it empathetically.
I agree that it's harder as you go down that path. But it is interesting that they are all relying on the same thing. You either design for yourself or you simulate designing for yourself.
At some point, the institution as a whole has to gain the ability to design for others or be relegated into a ghetto (cf: Crossing the chasm).
Now, a reasonable argument could be made that by the time this happens, it'll be possible to hire talent to help you scale, diversity wise. It's certainly possible but I wouldn't call it easy.
OTOH, I thinking baking in the assumption that you-are-not-your-user at the very early stages of the corporate culture makes that transition process significantly easier.
I don't believe this anymore.
After 4 years of trying to follow this advice, and building 4 different web applications that were things "I wish someone would make." I've given up on following PGs advice. Perhaps I'm an anomaly, but I'm fairly sure I'm not as there are so many startups out there that all try to solve the same handful of problems, and fail.
Most of us are developers, and we have a set number of 'tasks' that seem like they should be something you could build a business out of and so we all try to do them. Task Management, Project Management, Time Tracking, Social communication, etc. There are obviously winners in this space but they are established, and it is extremely difficult for a small group of developers to come along and decide to 'solve' one of those problems.
Maybe I'm just not interesting enough, I'll admit that is possible, but I've found much greater success by building applications that people tell me they want, and pay me to build.
I also don't have a billion dollar startup, so don't listen to me, but I couldn't let another article get by with espousing the virtues of just 'building what you like' without saying something.
Good god no, don't do that! Task management, project management and time tracking all severely fail the "will it get my users laid" test.
Take some time to pick up a few hobbies and interests that don't involve programming. This will improve your life in general, and it won't be long before you see how badly computers suck for people who aren't engineers. Soon you'll see dozens of ways you can use software to make things better, and a few of them might just be the kind of thing you could make into a business.
The difference is where your failure lies I think (of course I don't know you; just inferring from your comment).
It could be highly possible that you don't in fact have any critical problem that hasn't been addressed in a worthwhile way already by someone else. This is certainly true if you are young and a student.
I can guarantee you however that you simply won't be able to say this the moment you get into business. There are so many things that businesses need - from general to niche - that an inquisitive mind couldn't possibly ignore.
Perhaps the key is not trying to think of something you need right now, because your right now is saturated and complete. Perhaps what you need to do is enter the workforce in an area that interests you and make their problems yours.
- Doing a startup is like an iron man competition. When there's something you want to see built, there's that extra incentive to keep going. If you don't finish, you don't get the thing that you wanted. Steve Jobs said it best in his interview at D5 with BillG. Any sane person would give up, but if you really want to see what you're building exist in the world, you'll keep going.
- Usually the organic idea stems from some kind of domain expertise ie- If you used to work in the fashion sector, you recognize severely broken things that are amazingly obvious from spending so much time there. If you didn't work in the Fashion industry you would have no clue these things exist.
- You'll be able to find co-founders more easily. If you've spent time in a certain sector with a problem you're trying to solve, odds are a) you know people in that space really well b) they therefore know that vertical well c) they will recognize the problem as well.
Don't make something people want, but make something you want. Odds are there will be a good amount of other people like you out there. My first startup was a non organic idea. We were trying to make SaaS for PR professionals because it seemed like a good opportunity. Honest truth? I was never a PR professional and didn't really give two shits if PR professionals had good software. I could live if that itch wasn't scratched. Ironically, this failure spawned what is an Organic startup that i'm currently working on with Cloudomatic by helping SaaS developers get distribution. Life works in funny ways.
and this from pg: "There's nothing more valuable than an unmet need that is just becoming fixable"
are, in my experience, both true in science as well, and are useful heuristics for what to work on.
What was your strategy for figuring out what PR professionals wanted?
Publictivity originally started out as an organic startup- theWeblogWire, which was meant to connect startups and bloggers together. You wanted to launch something, we would make sure bloggers got it. We had a really successful launch (mashable, front page of digg, lifehacker, downloadsquad,etc. for press and we had bloggers from: all of gawker, weblogs inc, techcrunch,mashable,etc.). There were even paying customers too! We had been invited out to the valley to meet a bunch of important people that wanted to help us/advise us/etc.
Shortly thereafter, one of the cofounders Frank, went to someone he knew from way back in the day. His friend was the cofounder of pr firm. They thought what we were doing was great and gave us a bit of office space. One day the owner pops in and says: we need this software for PR! and we'll give you money to build it. This was the point Publictivity was born. We (stupidly beyond belief) shuttered theweblogwire for Publictivity, because it made sense to concentrate on only one thing + software seemed like a better startup path. We spent about two months in their offices so we were close to feedback and took meetings every few weeks to get feedback on how the "PR process" worked. We ourselves were clueless on Public Relations from a firm standpoint. We knew how it worked according to being a startup, but that's a fairly different process.
In hindsight, knowing what I now know just from startup experience, I would have never started down the path of Publictivity and continued onwards with theweblogwire. Why? theWeblogWire was meant to cure a need I really had.
My personal theory is that you can sometimes build profitable products, without being the customer, but you can't build great ones.
Microsoft and Apple seem to be two excellent examples. Apple's customer is Steve Jobs.
To be honest I am mostly interested in making a profit.
Edit: If you're trying to give Microsoft as an example of a company that fails to make great products because it fails to use them, think again: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/62/microsoft.html It seems more likely that they just suck.
They may use them internally, but I think a lot of their work is focussed on external users.
For example, Wozniak's idea meets the pay criteria. Facebook, Twitter, and most social apps don't. So they need more funding to bootstrap.
However, I could see embedded shops being willing to pay for it just so that (a) they have someone to call for support, and (b) it will continue to be developed.
I'd agree with that given the initial insistence that native apps were unnecessary. Every sufficiently popular platform devolves into a vehicle for delivering games eventually. If he were a gamer, he would have known that.
I have fond memories playing games on my computer before computing was ever consider popular. Gaming got me into programming, not visa-versa, and even tech startups (my first real taste was a gaming startup). And, I'd argue that gaming has been a significant contributor to the speed at which modern computing has been adopted by consumers. Honestly, if it wasn't for games during the 80's and 90's, my upgrade cycle would have been significantly longer.
The Mac never has (not saying there are no games on it - just that they are pretty insignificant, unlike the iPhone where games are significant)
1. Mark Pincus was successful 3 out of 4 times he got funding.
2. Jim Clark is the only person in the world to create three billion dollar companies.
What I've read of them suggests that they were exploiting trends, not necessarily scratching itches.
Didn't Marc Andreesen do this too? Or maybe Ning shouldn't be counted until it exits.
unfortunately none of Jim Clark's billion dollar companies are around today no matter how historically important they were.
Either build something that scratches your own itch, or if you're trying to solve somebody else's problem, understand that problem like it's your own.
My first funded start-up was an online English instruction website geared at students in East Asia. We had great software, a great idea, and the market was and still is huge, but I didn't learn English as a second language, and neither did my co-founder, and ultimately we just didn't understand the problem well enough from the user's point of view.
How old are typical startup founders? Can 29 really be considered "old" in terms of founder age?
And making something you want means you likely have a lot of knowledge already about the space. It's like an author being told "Write about your own experiences - write about what you know".
Also it really surprises me if someone is working at a big company 9-5, and doesn't have a side project. Get a side project all you people! It could turn into something other people want as well.
Looking back at YouTube, PayPal or many others (now) most successful companies, their originally idea was completely different. PayPal changed 4 times during his first year, YouTube at the beginning was a video dating site. So, I think that another way to build huge companies is more in the ability of the founders to understand and iterate on first early adopters needs instead of "I need that" scenario. They have to be as fast as possible to change the product around what people want. But if they are fast enough a startup that looks a completely disaster at the beginning could turn into a gold mine.
Thinking about Slide; Max Levchin has changed the company proposition many times, or look at Airbnb, they were a renting couch website with the focus on the events and not on travelling, they changed that very fast and now they are just making a revolution into the world of travel.
The most important part, is to start, with the conscience that your company could change completely, and you have to accept that before it will be too late to fit the market.
Money quote: "But that's just what we've always done: gone fishing with strawberries. We've made a business by offering our customers what we ourselves want. And it's worked!"
We've funded lots of people in their 30s.
Which reminds me that the eassys really need some tagging, as there are very related "ideas" essays, but reaching out for google to remeber what was said and where takes more time than it should.
I'm pretty young. Will asking people what they want work?
Has there been any scientific research on the effectiveness of focus groups?
And sometimes they're so used to the way things are now they don't realise there's a problem in the first place.
Who besides you and Henry Ford is participating in this consensus? I'm not trying to be mean or confrontational. The fact that you're speaking of a consensus while sharing the opinions of only two people suggests that you have a lot of additional information you're not telling me about :o)
"Summarized in this quote from Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.""
I'm not suggesting that you exclusively pursue the strategy of asking people what they want for the development of your idea. More like guess what they want, then ask them if your guess sounds good. Or listen to a description of what they do now, suggest a change or improvement, and see how they react.
There are two stages to the development of a startup's product description. The first is (or should be) before any code is written. The second is after the initial product is launched. I think you can do both stages effectively without actually being much of a user of the product yourself.
I hope you don't expect me to make a scientific paper out of a forum comment?
I seem to remember an article claiming a similar thing on HN just a couple of days or weeks ago (by one of the Guru bloggers). They pop up every now and then.
But since you don't seem to consent, I happily withdraw my claim that it is a consensus.
In the end I guess it doesn't really matter how you arrive at your good idea. Maybe some good ideas can be derived from asking customers, others come from other places.
Is Guru a blogging network of some sort?
He suggests that you schedule 15 minute interviews (no sales pressure) with a range of people in your target marketplace. Ask them about their pain points and try to come up with a solution with them.
There is a lot more detail in the essays I linked to about what to do next.
Demo day?: Make something people want.
Acqusition?: I made something people wanted.
"There are ideas that obvious lying around now."
The really great business opportunities are in the areas the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid drinkers don't even look twice. Many of them are not even fundable by VCs because they aren't sexy. YC funds some cool ideas, but most of them are immediately useful to the 20 year olds who come up with them, which means they are immediately taking on markets being built out by the rest of the startup community.
Ask a 60 year old manager of a sales force in a backward industry how his business works and you'll find real "organic" startup ideas. You might even find an idea that adds value to the universe, and might therefor yield revenue and profit.
Yes, this is my greatest problem. It is even worse: Usually most of my reasonably good ideas were some kind of developer tools. When I search for similar products, usually I find depressingly lots of them. But even if I am sure I could do it a bit better than others, almost all of them are open source free products created by passion by people who earn their money as consultants. There is no way I could sell my stuff for money if it is only slightly better then these open source free products.