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I hope I don't come across as negative here, but I hate lists like this.

Peopel are always raining on each others' ideas

"Oh, what, you're going to make a myspace clone? Bahahahaha." (facebook)

"Oh, what, you're going to make a facebook clone? Bahahahaha." (twitter)

"Oh, what, you're going to make another dating website? Bahahahaha."

(Okcupid, plentyoffish)

"Oh, what, you're going to make another social bookmarking website? Bahahahaha."

(Reddit, digg, hacker news, etc.)

This sort of "You can't improve on an existing design" rhetoric is usually coming from the same people who champion companies like netflix and say things like "The RIAA suing downloaders is like wagon wheel manufacturers suing car tire manufacturers! GET WITH THE TIMES, HELLO!"

You want to make a better dating website? Awesome, I hope you do and I hope it's better than okcupid! If it fails, guess who's going to come out the other side better than they were when they started?

You want to make an abstract machine learning system? Good! I hope you do! Guess who's probably going to be learning a lot about ML when they come out the other side?

You want to make a craigslist/ebay mashup? Good! Do it today! Start it right now and, if it's better than craigslist, my friends and I are all going to use it! How much are you going to learn about interface/UX design in the process?

You want to apply gaming mechanics to exercise? Good! Do it and tell me about it! That sounds awesome! Make an iPhone app for it, make a facebook app for it, let me pick random strangers across the internet to challenge at it. Make leaderboards and lots of badgers, and blog about it. If you fail, write more blog posts about why you failed.

I'm sorry, I'm sure the author of this blog post had good intentions; trying to help other geeks, but I find this sort of "don't even try this because it's a stupid idea and you're going to fail" attitude extremely harmful.

The first project I ever did was called http://newslily.com it was a fark/reddit/hn/digg clone. Did I sell it to google for 2 billion dollars and retire to a yacht somewhere just east of anywhere on the planet? No. Did I go from knowing absolutely nothing whatsoever about web development to being able to turn ideas into things? Yes.

My current project is called http://thingist.com . Have people said "oh, psh, you're making a twitter clone...boorrrrriinnnggggggg."?

Guess who doesn't care? My daydreaming about having 50 millions users is forcing me to learn about scaling, and how to use mod_python (oh, and if I get super crazy, maybe nginx as a web cache for my 10 users!). In a year, or two months, or six weeks, or however long it takes me to decide that, yeah, well, it's just another twitter clone and isn't going to get more than 10 users, I'm going to be 1 twitter clone closer experience wise to making something people love. (Although I still think that thingist isn't a twitter clone).

My advice: make 10 twitter clones and 20 abstracted ML frameworks. NOT doing this is like a running coach advising their runners not to waste their time jogging around their neighborhood because they're really not going anywhere anyway.




Life is very, very short. Given the choice between building yet another Craigslist-killer that nobody will use and anything that people will use, choose the latter. You will never get the most productive years of your life back. Knowing SEO, web dev, and a lot about classified ads is cold comfort.

At the end of each failed company, you are going to feel like "well, at least I learned a lot". I know, because that's how I felt. You feel that way because your brain is insulating you from the real loss. You have indeed learned things; that's what makes this particular rationalization so powerful.

Many, many people tried making Myspace clones. Many, many more will try to make Facebook clones. Inevitably, one or two people will be successful, just like people will occasionally win the lottery.

Other people will succeed with companies that contain elements of Facebook, or OK Cupid, or Twitter, or Craigslist. But their businesses won't be "better Twitter" or "better Facebook"; they'll be distinct, unique, interesting businesses that learned lessons from earlier successful companies and applied them to do something different. Some of these companies may grow to challenge Facebook, just like Twitter did. But they won't have gotten there by pointing a finger at Facebook and saying "you're going down".

My advice: learn everything you can from Twitter, and then use the ideas to come up with something you can build and get money from.


How many of these bad ideas are simply nerds looking at facebook saying "you're going down"? I doubt twitter was, and I doubt that whatever eventually topples facebook will be.

My point is that this sort of philosophy helps nobody. People who are already successful already know this stuff. At least to me, this sort of list feels like it's being aimed at people who haven't "made it" yet and are still trying to figure "it" out.

When I was in High School a friend of mine named Steve Fisher said something that I doubt he remembers, but has stuck with me. He was trying to teach me how to skateboard, something that was totally not the type of activity that a nerdy, awkward, 15 year old Ryan thought he could do. So we're sitting at the skatepark and there are lots of other people around doing what I thought were difficult tricks. I was sitting on a bench just watching and trying to think of a valid reason not to ride my skateboard around because I was 100% positive that I was going to fall flat on my face and that all of the other people were going to laugh at me.

My friend comes over and says "What the hell are you doing?" "Oh, I was, err..just, uhh, tightening these bolts." "Bullshit, did you figure out how to ollie it yet?" "No, dude, I'm just going to practice at home in my room more until I can figure it out, I don't want to get in everybody's way."

He told me that I had to just go ride the thing in circles until it felt natural, and that if he saw me sitting on the bench again, I wasn't invited to the skatepark anymore. I rode my skateboard around all afternoon, probably fell on my face a few times, but didn't get laughed at even once.

A stupid story, probably.

How does this apply to startups?

Maybe it's just the communities I hang around in, but many coders are really really not like the skaters in my story. They really will laugh at the kid riding his skateboard in circles (writing twitter clones and craigslist mashups) like an idiot. How many designers have posted tirades to their blog talking about how everybody is stupid, and how they're sick of all these stuuupid people asking them to do designs? To me, lists like this are exactly like telling a kid that he's riding his skateboard in circles and to stop wasting his time doing that. If you can't show up and start doing backflips, then don't waste your time even coming. People have already figured out how to ride in circles.

Anybody whose time would be wasted writing yet another dating website doesn't need a list like this to tell them that. They know.


I don't want to make people feel bad any more than you do. But there are good business ideas and there are bad business ideas, and life is tough that way, and starting a head-on competitor to Facebook with nothing but your ability to learn how to represent a graph in MySQL is a bad business idea.


I guess my point is that it is sortof self-validating.

If you need somebody to tell you not to build this stuff, then you probably aren't yet at a point where building one of them wouldn't be a learning experience for you, even if that learning experience is just "stop building twitter clones".


You see how your cheerleading has actually become toxic for the people you want to be helping? "If they need someone to tell them this"... then they should be penalized by being led to waste up to a year of their life? How about you lead them somewhere productive instead of into the tar pits?


I'm sorry, but no. Absolutely not. This is not "toxic" for anybody. "Waste up to a year of their life?"

When I was 16, my friends and I thought we were going to take over the world by starting a "tech company". We knew we were all nerds, and we knew we wanted to own a "tech company". We got together, thought up a cool name, made a cool website, and got some cool business cards.

Was this a stupid idea? Yes.

Did I learn a lot from it? Yes.

Do you consider 4 years spent in business school a waste of time? Toxic? Do you consider time spent going to school for computer science, learning to program a "waste"?

How many times have computer science students written "cash register" programs in java? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Was this time all wasted?

I would say no.


Yes, business school is a waste.

Yes, Java cash register programs are a waste.

Yes, doomed Craigslist competitors are a waste.

People too young to go to business school have cashed out of YC companies. Aspire to that, not to rationalizing very expensive learning experiences.


>People too young to go to business school have cashed out of YC companies.

Did these people crawl out of the womb with a keyboard in one hand and an apache server in the other?

How do you suppose they learned how to program?


Not by trying to turn a Java cash register into a business. There's nothing particularly wrong with writing a Twitter clone as an exercise (although I could think of more interesting exercises), but trying to turn it into a business - with everything that entails - is such a large distraction from coding that you'd better skip it (if your goal is to be a good programmer; I'm certainly not a sufficiently good businessman to judge whether it's effective training for that, although I would go to work for someone else and observe.)


Presumably the same way I did. I have 1 semester of school, and I took liberal arts classes.


This has turned in to a strange discussion :|


I have never had a class on apache server, nor on keyboard and still I know how to use both, so the desire to learn is much more important than attending classes.


So basically you are trying to say any kind of education and learning process is a waste unless you go and aim straight at multinational multibillion dollar success or what is your point?


Yes, that must be exactly what I'm saying; the only other alternative would be that a 4-year education in computer science followed by a 2-year business school degree is the only authentically valid way to commence a career in software development. Right?


How about being both right and wrong and having other options in the middle too? (like most things in life)


Maybe my sarcasm detector is off but to me you are not making any sense at all in this whole thread here but you sound a lot like you are on a very special quest of altering the way people think about education and programming so good luck, I'll just forget whatever it was you were trying to get into people's minds.


Your sarcasm detector is off. Sorry.


Just to put this into perspective a bit: I doubt that any of those "awesome" success stories like facebook, twitter or whatnot would have ever been found a "really good business idea" a few years ago; go back 10, 20 years and offering ANYTHING like storage for free on the intarwebs was most definitely not just a bad but a stupid business idea.

Like you said earlier, a lot of it is luck, just like winning the lottery. By not playing/trying at all you will most definitely not win any lottery.

Doing exactly 100% the same that is already existing anyway (facebook,twitter,myspace..) doesn't sound like a great idea but improving on that, well why not?


"... He told me that I had to just go ride the thing in circles until it felt natural, and that if he saw me sitting on the bench again, I wasn't invited to the skatepark anymore. I rode my skateboard around all afternoon, probably fell on my face a few times, but didn't get laughed at even once. A stupid story, probably. ..."

Great analogy & why I keep reading the comments before the story.


Life is very, very short. Given the choice between not building anything at all and building a "Craigslist killer" that no one will use, I absolutely agree - go for it!

Given the choice between building a cliche project and something a bit more off the beaten path - you may as well put a few extra days of thought into a project before you start, and come up with something unique (as long as you don't spend all your time thinking and none of your time doing).

The problem with the ideas listed is that they're obvious - both myself and my friends have talked about/wanted to approach almost every single one - but it's not obvious how to actually build a better mouse trap for each of them. It's useful to realize when you're trying to attack a generic problem (that has already been solved) with an equally generic strategy.


The ideas are obvious because people want them.

Lots of people want a Craigslist alternative that doesn't have the shittiest search interface this side of 2004. Lots of people want a dating site with a 'market' that doesn't heavily heavily favor women. Lots of people want to exercise/lose weight in a fun game-like way. Lots of people want the concept of TripAdvisor but don't feel like they identify at all with the typical TripAdvisor reviewer.

It's hard to learn about why these things are difficult without actually trying to do them.


"Lots of people want a dating site with a 'market' that doesn't heavily heavily favor women."

Yeah, they're called men. And given that history tells us that attracting men to dating sites isn't a business-limiting problem, it follows that building a (heterosexual) dating site that appeals to men is not a good business idea.


I think what he meant was dating sites suck if you're a man since: 1.) Men do all the chasing/initiating contact. 2.) Women get inundated with a lot of messages from a lot of other eligible men that you're competing with your entire neighborhood for a single girl. 3.) Hence women tend to be really picky and chances of her noticing/replying back you are incredibly low.


how is this different from real life?


I'd say just the opposite. Life is very short so don't attempt to compete with Craigslist unless your site is based on A) different assumptions about what creates value for your users and B) a different worldview concerning human values, the economy, the future, etc.

The problem with most Craigslist competitors is that they are designed for mainstream Craigslist users. This indicates that the people doing them usually don't have the level of thoughtfulness that's needed to succeed. And while it's certainly possible to listen to your fans and make changes as you go, it's too hard to succeed this way against an already entrenched competitor unless you have at least a little bit of an ideological advantage compared to the existing platform. For example, if you want to start yet another fitness company based on game mechanics but you haven't read Punished By Rewards then you are probably pretty screwed.


Lots of people talk shit, very few people do shit.


> The problem with the ideas listed is that they're obvious

It is surprisingly difficult to tell if an idea seems obvious because it is just, well, bloody obvious, or because it is a really good one.

A surprising amount of great, original ideas seem obvious with the help of just a tiny bit of hindsight. Or foresight, for that matter.


If an idea seems obvious, and people keep failing at making that obvious idea work, then you better have a damn clear idea of why all those other people failed and what you'll do differently to succeed. That's usually the non-obvious part hidden under an obvious idea.


Reminds me of a quote, akin to: Sometimes, we reinvent the wheel not because we need more wheels, but we need more inventors.

If you see your project as learning about tech, then awesome. But I think the OP was warning against those that see their projects as paths to riches with those ideas. There are certain startup ideas that are perennial tar pits with good reason. There's something specific about the problem area that everyone's banged their head against, and often times, it's not a tech problem.

It'd be worth your while to understand it first.


Just one advice: mod_python is more or less dead (Last Release in 2007) you should probably switch to mod_wsgi.


Thanks for the advice, I'll try that instead :)


Out of interest, are you on Twitter? I found your above post pretty insightful, like that you work on a whole bunch of stuff - I'd like to add you my list of cool people who hack Python and keep in touch.


Sure! twitter/blhack (although I don't really twitter much)

Thank you for the kind words :)


"NOT doing this is like a running coach advising their runners not to waste their time jogging around their neighborhood because they're really not going anywhere anyway."

That, sir, is a brilliant summary. I have the feeling that I've been running around the neighborhood a lot recently, but I can also detect my legs getting stronger, so to speak.


Actually the author of the original article is not that negative about the ideas he mentions: "This suggests that either all nerds think alike, or alternatively, that they are unsolved problems that someone, someday, somewhere, may actually come up with a variant that hits big."


I have no doubt that all your examples can be improved upon. The problem is that you then need people to use your new and improved twitter/foursquare/facebook/mysqpace/digg, and the market is already saturated. So, to get the users you need to improve on the idea so much that you disrupt the market. Don't get me wrong, it's all in good fun, but there is a difference between a weekend pet project and a funded startup: the funded startup needs to think about where the final product will end up.


You make great points for the engineering minded, and the original article was about nerds, so that's all grand.

However; when I inwardly cringe at these ideas being rehashed (possibly not the machine learning one), it's when someone non-technical is eagerly pitching me their Facebook for Dogs idea and trying to get me to code it up for free, it'll be the Next Big Thing, just you wait and see...


I think it's worth highlighting that none of these are new and unique ideas. If you honestly believe that you have a fresh approach or a new innovation to apply to any of these fields, then by all means go for it. But if you have one of these ideas, and you think that that idea in and of itself is going to get you somewhere, you need a wake-up call.


wow. that's really insightful. thanks for the post. I guess you're right, there is room for improvement, but . . .

I wonder if the failure rate is higher, because those ideas are common, and everyone tries it. Yeah maybe the same number will succeed, but since everyone and their mom is doing it, it probably won't be you . . . dunno.

Btw, a news site should be on the list too. Even I have one of those: http://tech.rawsignal.com.


I always thought a sports version of techmeme would be useful. Voila! http://sports.rawsignal.com


haha thanks. yeah, we built this product for ourselves and friends. it's kind of a passion product that we're constantly working on.

sports was for my brother, but then he wanted college football specifically, so we rolled out this for him: http://collegefb.rawsignal.com/

will we become huge, who knows. who cares really, we love what we do.


Yup, totally. I have one of those as well: http://cooln.es


>> You want to apply gaming mechanics to exercise? Good! Do it and tell me about it! That sounds awesome! Make an iPhone app for it, make a facebook app for it, let me pick random strangers across the internet to challenge at it. Make leaderboards and lots of badgers, and blog about it. If you fail, write more blog posts about why you failed.

We just did that for Medical field - "Prognosis", currently at 5th position on iPhone medical apps (after 15 days).

http://www.prognosisapp.com/ http://blog.medicaljoyworks.com/


Did you just show this app off on HN the other day?

(Just installed it. Was this supposed to be only for doctors...or?)


Yes, posted on HN about 5 days ago. Our main user group is doctors and medical students (or any healthcare professionals who are familiar with little bit of medicine).

Take a look at iMedicalApps review for detailed analysis (good and bad) : http://www.imedicalapps.com/2010/11/prognosis-your-diagnosis...


Huh. My sister is a med student. I'll forward this on to her :)


[...] I find this sort of "don't even try this because it's a stupid idea and you're going to fail" attitude extremely harmful.

That's not what the author had in mind. In fact, it's explicitly written: "[...]or alternatively, that they are unsolved problems that someone, someday, somewhere, may actually come up with a variant that hits big."

So, it's rather "If you invest serious resources in that, you better know why exactly you're better than the gazillions other guys who had tried this." than "Don't try at all".

And yes, trying those ideas as a sort of training is a brilliant idea in itself.


This wasn't meant of a critique of the author, it was meant as a critique of a lot of geeks (self included) feelings overall.


Best comment on the site (by RFarahmand): All of these ideas seem perfect, and yes, we know them all... its all about execution. The fact is most of the nerds like myself ( 99.99%) don't get operational and don't execute. The 0.01% who aren't afraid of failure go to silicon valley and fail - maybe many times, among them lucky ones with better execution are the ones who make billions! with a bit of luck The harder you work, the luckier you get!


Like others have said, life is too short to work on bad ideas. This list isn't saying that these ideas are necessarily bad, but that they're too common. So you should think about what makes your idea sub-variant different enough; if you can't, that's a sign your idea may be bad.

Frankly I wish more people would say 'your idea is bad (because of X)' because that's useful feedback, rather than the usual feels-good-but-useless 'good idea'. You can always choose to disagree with X; or maybe you'll find a solution for X.




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