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What a stupid idea (dcurt.is)
517 points by nate on Apr 30, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 220 comments

Success is not validation of an idea and we should be ashamed to think so.

Cigarettes are one of the most successful consumer products on earth. Inhaling a lungful of carcinogenic smoke several hundred times a day is undoubtedly a stupid idea. Tobacco has made a small number of people incomprehensibly rich, to the great detriment of humanity.

Personally, I think nearly all of these 'social' startups are bad news. Not as bad news as a lung cancer epidemic, but bad news nonetheless. I think they feed a culture of passivity and attention deficit. I think they fragment human interaction into the smallest possible dopamine-inducing units. I think they're essentially Skinner boxes in disguise - apps that dress up an intermittent schedule of reward as meaningful activity.

The startup culture talks the talk about "changing the world", but in truth most of us couldn't care less so long as we get our next funding round. For every Watsi, we have a hundred bullshit companies with bullshit products, providing yet another means of idle distraction for indolent westerners. We can hardly distinguish between what is worthwhile and what is popular or profitable. It has hardly occurred to Curtis or anyone in these comments that an idea could be both successful and stupid.

Is Pinterest really an innovative sharing tool, or is it merely a collaborative exercise in commodity fetishism? Is Vine really a radical new way to communicate, or is it merely the nadir of audiovisual culture, fragmenting the world into six-second shards of nothingness? Do we even care?

This is one of the best comments I've seen on HN in awhile. I think once you spend enough time in the valley, you see how many hacks are trying to "change the world" right until their startup is about to fail and then they adapt the exact same behaviors they were trying to disrupt. It's about survival and once a company becomes your baby you will do anything to survive. It's not a terrible thing, but it is something we should be aware of. This isn't all the peak of innovation, many times it's just people working on a CRUD site trying to "disrupt big industry player x" until they run out of money and then resort to the same cheap tactics as everyone else.

You really hit the nail on the head and i agree 100% with this line " This isn't all the peak of innovation, many times it's just people working on a CRUD site trying to "disrupt big industry player x" until they run out of money and then resort to the same cheap tactics as everyone else." I have to ask myself is it worth it to start a web or mobile phone startup right now or wait a few yrs. The reason why i am thinking along these lines, is because it is so hard to find product differentiation in this climate with everyone running lean and trampling all over each other.

An example, i clicked on the above link and assumed i was on the website Medium, but then i saw that he was the creator of svbtle, so i decide to check it out, assuming it might be a fashion site, then i realized that svbtle is the site i was on. It seems like the only place seeing any real product differentiation and innovation is the hardware space right now.

Really good ideas can be started at any time, and don't suffer from competitive pressure. The way i see it, there are two categories of products: gold rushes and fishing expeditions. The social space is a classic gold rush scenario. The winners in that space won almost by accident, and someone else could have easily taken their place. Google on the other hand started as a fishing expedition. If they hadn't built it back when they did, we might have used altavisa for another 5 years and been none the wiser.

I agree that Svbtle and Medium have a similar look and overall design sensibility. But in the interest of giving credit where it is due...

Svbtle's announcement is dated March 22, 2012


Medium's announcement is dated October 29, 2012

(not to mention Obtvse)

So, I think Dustin deserves some credit for originality on this one.

Originality? You mean iteration right?

My impression is that he came up with a design successful enough that it has well-known imitators. Can you say a bit about what you mean by “iteration”?

It's not a terrible thing,

I was right there with you until this. What do you mean "it's not a terrible thing"? Someone trying to change the world for the better, and they fail, that's not terrible? Someone giving up on their dreams, is that not terrible? Sure, sure, everyone has to pay the bills, and I'm not going to fault anyone who tries and fails, but it still (at a minimum) disappoints me every time I see someone with talent and/or skill waste it on something of no lasting value or meaning.

I'm going to say it first, I'm sure others will be thinking it. This is the WORST type of comment on HN.

Tobacco was invented in 5000 BC according to wikipedia. At that point in time it had basically none of the bad side effects you mention due to shorter life spans. It probably had numerous positive side effects.

Now you don't like facebook??? Well, honestly, I do. I like it to keep in touch with people and it had real value to me when I moved to a city where I didn't know a single person as it made me feel less alone. I'm sure many others have benefited.

Judging a startup, company, etc. because you don't see the value shows you are overly judgmental and immature.

The product market has been very good at delivering value over the last 7,000+ years. Let it do its job and try to get off your high horse.

The companies mentioned are highly successful. If you think you can do it, feel free to do it, donate the cash you make to Watsi and sit in your recliner while enjoying how good of a person you are. Otherwise, make a comment that adds value like the OP did.

Full disclaimer: I couldn't care less about any of the companies mentioned, I'm just sick of reading comments like this.

[edit] added an n't to could

> Tobacco was invented in 5000 BC according to wikipedia. At that point in time it had basically none of the bad side effects you mention due to shorter life spans. It probably had numerous positive side effects.

Another reason that tobacco historically had "basically none of the bad side effects" is that people didn't smoke it nearly in the quantities they do today. Then a few startups (well, they weren't called that back then) came along and it "has made a small number of people incomprehensibly rich, to the great detriment of humanity".

> Now you don't like facebook??? Well, honestly, I do. I like it to keep in touch with people and it had real value to me when I moved to a city where I didn't know a single person as it made me feel less alone. I'm sure many others have benefited.

Strawman. Nowhere in his post jdietrich mentions Facebook.

> The companies mentioned are highly successful.

No one argues that these companies aren't successful. The argument is that the fact that they are highly successful does not mean that they are a good for society as a whole.

> I could care less about any of the companies mentioned

You mean, you couldn't care less, right? :P (Sorry, that particular Americanism is a pet peeve of mine.)

I have nothing to add to the discussion at large, so...

I find the phrase, "I could care less" charming. I'm not sure if it was originally intended as simple sarcasm (or more likely a misspoken phrase) but to me in its form it has a gentle subtlety. A slightly tongue-in-cheek, "typically when discussing the amount I care about a topic, it falls within an average range. However on this particular topic, I care for it so little that I must be explicit that it would actually be possible for me to care less. For a more meaningful topic, such a statement wouldn't be necessary."

I respect your logic, but the strawman here is valid. Facebook is a social network and now it is a big one. Pinterest (I don't even know the spelling), could be the next FB). I don't have a pinterest account, but it probably serves real value to the women who use it. Someday, it could be an FB.

also, I slur couldnt care less when I speak bc I have no idea the right way to say it!

jdietrich argues:

"I think nearly all of these 'social' startups are bad news" (emphasis added).

This allows that some "social startups" might be a good idea, and is not (at least, not as I interpret it) an argument against social media in general. Besides, Facebook has long stopped being a "startup" so this comment does not apply to it.

As I understand it, jdietrich argues against the recent trend of "socialising" every aspect of our lives through increasingly frivolous apps that provide instant gratification but lead to shallow and superficial interactions.

This does not mean that you can't have meaningful interactions through social media. Your example of using Facebook to keep in touch with people when moving to a new city is an illustration of that. However it does not invalidate jdietrich's argument in any away.

It's "couldn't". "Could care less" is content-free, like "up to X or more". I could, or I couldn't. Whatever. "Couldn't care less", on the other hand, implies that your apathy has hit rock bottom, and there is no room for it to go any lower. "Could care less" is a mistake perpetuated by people who just repeat things that sound good without understanding them.

> You mean, you couldn't care less, right? :P (Sorry, that particular Americanism is a pet peeve of mine.)

"I could care less" is an American idiom, and this is a US site. Ad hominem.

It's US hosted, but it's certainly used by people in many countries, what does it even mean to say it is a US site? The network makes geography meaningless. PG could host it in Sunnyvale or Singapore and none of us would notice or care. Ok some would notice, this is hn after all.

I was only half serious with that remark (hence the smilie). It was not intended to be an Ad Hominem attack to weaken wtvanhest's argument (though it could have that effect -- thanks for pointing that out). I am aware that "I could care less" is a wide-spread US idiom and understand the intended meaning it conveys; but it still makes me cringe whenever I see it.

There's plenty of Americans that are annoyed by it, too.

Also please go learn what "ad hominem" actually means. It does not simply mean "insult".

I know what it means. Why add it to the end of an argument out of the blue if it's not intended that way? Still it was late at night and I should have added my own smiley. ;)

I always read "I could care less" as "I could care less ... but that would require expending actual effort and no."

Then again, I'm not a knee-jerking grammarian prescriptivist.

I should get that on a t-shirt thanks. Actually I'm British and don't have strong feelings about the phrase either way. If I did, I still don't criticize people for using idioms of their own culture.

Tobacco was not a particularly great cause of morbidity and mortality until the invention of the cigarette rolling machine. The cheap, mass-produced cigarette offered an instant hit of nicotine which was more convenient than pipes and more affordable than cigars.

Tobacco is a natural leaf that became a mass killer because it was packaged in small, easy to consume units that provided an instant dopamine hit, then relentlessly marketed. I feel it is an extremely good analogy to the current crop of 'social' startups.

Businesses exist in order to make profits for their shareholders; The benefit they provide for their customers or society is merely a happy coincidence. Until the Pure Food and Drug Act, most medicines did more harm than good. Asbestos was incredibly profitable for a great many businesses. I have every right to criticise a business if I believe their product is harmful, regardless of how popular or successful that business might be. To do so does not make me judgemental or immature, but simply an engaged citizen. The belief that all successful products are socially beneficial is clearly absurd.

Many natural leaves are mildly or severely poisonous, and anything that someone enjoys (or which even surprises them, or involves motor function) can cause a 'dopamine hit'. The pureness or naturalness of tobacco really isn't the issue and neither is dopamine.

I disagree primarily with your first statement:

>Success is not validation of an idea and we should be ashamed to think so.

To me, it is the very definition of success. If you think that a product is harmful you can state that, but belittling its success because you don't feel like it is best allocation of resources sounds very similar to what the governments of both China and Russia did prior to the cold war and some might even go as far as to say it is a somewhat communist view.

I admit, when I read your comment, I skipped over this by accident:

>It has hardly occurred to Curtis or anyone in these comments that an idea could be both successful and stupid.

There is probably an interesting debate here from a finance perspective on what should and shouldn't be invested in at the early stage. (or what should or shouldn't be worked on). I'm not smart enough to know what is stupid or not stupid, but it is still an interesting concept.

I think there's some confusion here over what jdietrich meant by "Success is not validation of an idea." He was merely pointing out that just because a product is successful (i.e. everyone buys it) doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea (i.e. a net positive contribution to society). It may be a good idea, or it may be neutral, or even potentially a net harm (such as in the case of cigarettes). He's not trying to redefine success, he's just saying it shouldn't be the only consideration when judging an idea.

I think we can at least agree on that point.

Side note: I'll admit that there is no single objective interpretation as to what actually constitutes a "good idea," which further complicates the issue. I just figured "net positive contribution to society" was general enough to make my point.

except that determining what is a "net contribution to society" is an extremely difficult task.

Maybe after a lengthy analysis, you may come up with a good list of points and counter points, but to whimsically dismiss some of the fastest growing websites in the world without even making an attempt to show how they are not a good idea is not a worthwhile comment.

They're the internet equivalent of junk food.

Yeah, ok.

But none of this is what Dustin's post was about.

The post was about people asking him if he thought their product could be successful, and how he mistakenly dismissed them as being destined to fail.

Your views maybe valid, but your commentary is off topic.

OP talks about successful products and stupid ideas, and jdietrich questions OP's definition of these terms. I don't see how this is off-topic.

It isn't off-topic. User 'tomhoward' just has a very narrow view of the world.

I don't feel like "but I like it, so your argument is wrong" is a very good counter-argument to "facebook makes human interactions worse".

wrong. I'm describing the value I get. The fact that I get value means it does have value. My guess is that some of the other millions of users also get value. That is a fair guess. His/her comment is ridiculous.

Right, and my point was simply that you getting value does not invalidate the argument that this may or may not be bad for humanity. I'm sure pretty much everyone who uses it gets a non-zero amount of value from it, but the person, right or wrong, was arguing about the negatives outweighing the value, not whether or not there was value.

Exactly. You might get value from doing heroin like millions of others, but that doesn't means it's good for people/humanity. I'm not saying FB doesn't have value (it does because it connects people) but I, for one, remember the world being a better place without FB as many others would most likely agree here on HN. More importantly, innovation had more value when 1000 people were trying to create software/hardware/services to help people vs. 1000 instagram and social networking clones for a quick Series round or exit.

You are describing the value you think you are getting. Someone else describes the value they think you are getting. What is ridiculous and what is not kind of depends on how well they observe and how well you reflect.

You make an interesting point about the shorter lifespans when tobacco was first smoked. Wikipedia says cultivation sites in Mexico date back to 1400-1000 BC or possibly even further [0].

On the other hand, you say, "This is the WORST type of comment on HN...I'm just sick of reading comments like this." Please try to be civil -- Hacker News normally has such a positive community.

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tobacco

"Smoking's history dates back to as early as 5000–3000 BC when the agricultural product began to be cultivated in South America; consumption later evolved into burning the plant substance either by accident or with intent of exploring other means of consumption."

I am willing to be a real asshole for the first time on HN because I just don't get this type of comment. This is constantly garbage and it makes me so frustrated to see people who think they are better than someone else because they decided to pursue what they think is right whether or not they are actually right.

> I am willing to be a real asshole for the first time on HN because I just don't get this type of comment. This is constantly garbage and it makes me so frustrated to see people who think they are better than someone else because they decided to pursue what they think is right whether or not they are actually right.

Do you ever stop to think what the impact of technology on society, and human relations, is? It's not 'garbage' - it's not proven right either, as society hasn't disintegrated any further than the 17th or 18th century, but I do see an impact in how little people talk to each other, in the addiction to feel-good gratification (or instant gratification - why else am I reading HN?), and in attention span.

To my reading the OP doesn't think they are better than others. When you've had a chance to reflct I'd be interested to know the reasons behind your reaction.

You are correct about the dates –– I found the article that you were quoting [1].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_smoking

Does he make an interesting point or just a superficially plausible one? Adult longevity != life expectancy at birth, to a pretty considerable degree.

What's wrong with raising concerns about the big-picture societal effects of the technology that we're creating? Many things can provide value but also come with a high price. This doesn't make them immune from criticism.

Fantastic comment, well said, right on the money, perfection.

I was recently at a startup event in Los Angeles, where the terms "Silicon Beach" and "change the world" were mentioned at least a dozen times. While I love that Los Angeles, for example, is trying to create companies and products/services in the technology space, making another photo sharing app or social network is most likely not "changing the world" in any way whatsoever. Not to mention the stupidity that is the "Silicon Beach" name simply because it "sounds cool" and "they're making stuff in Silicon Valley, let's call ourselves Silicon Beach."

I think the problem lies with the current culture and crop of young people who think success and innovation is attained by spending a few months making an app for iOS. They see success stories like FB, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., read TechCrunch about who raised what round, memorize the terminology and assume that a derivative product will be equally successful. Doesn't work that way, for 99.99% of people/products.

I also think this might be another trend, a sort of app-bubble so to speak where real technology will eventually take precedence over all these bullshit "companies" that are basically applications for an Apple built ecosystem riding a wave a VC money. I want to believe that because we are in a dire state of innovation. There are TONS of real world problems that need to be solved and if more people applied themselves to really "change the world" we would have some amazing companies sprouting up. Perhaps the app-cowboys will continue to battle each other in the Top Charts while seeking Series money to simply get acquired by an even bigger app-company. It's unfortunate we've reached this point of technology, something that wasn't as prevalent before the iOS/smartphone days. Let's see what happens.

The part that got to me was: "They saw the future and they built it."

These applications are toys, not the future. They may be well built, popular, amusing but they are still toys. When I think of someone who sees the future and tries to build it, the first name that comes up is Elon Musk with SpaceX. There are others.

Saying an iPhone exclusive application that lets you share 4 second videos is the future is simply insulting to my intelligence.


Vine is probably the dumbest application of the year. Unfortunately, it's not the last.

> I think they're essentially Skinner boxes in disguise - apps that dress up an intermittent schedule of reward as meaningful activity.

Perhaps it is our moral obligation, as the market is primed and ready to pay for Skinner boxes, to take as much of that money as possible and, say, give it to the Gates Foundation or somesuch?

If we don't, someone will use that opportunity to build Farmville.

> Is Pinterest really an innovative sharing tool, or is it merely a collaborative exercise in commodity fetishism? Is Vine really a radical new way to communicate, or is it merely the nadir of audiovisual culture, fragmenting the world into six-second shards of nothingness?

How about both? Framing and "meaning" are individual, subjective concepts. If we want objective benefit to society, our goal must be to make as much money as possible in the most efficient way we can find, and then use that money to effect change.

Case-in-point: Tesla's use of an immediately viable business model (sell luxury electric cars to rich people) to gain a bunch of money/experience to make mass-market electric cars to sell to everyone (which will then presumably benefit society).

The startup culture talks the talk about "changing the world", but in truth most of us couldn't care less so long as we get our next funding round. For every Watsi, we have a hundred bullshit companies with bullshit products, providing yet another means of idle distraction for indolent westerners.

I guess there is a subtle difference between changing the world and making the world better.

Did Pinterest change the world? I bet it did - it has heaps of users. Those people would spend some of their time in a different way if there was no Pinterest, hence - world would be different.

Now, did Pinterest make the world better?

Very well argued. I'm usually very dismissive of people who complain about companies pursuing seemingly unimportant goals, because at one time cars, electronics, and personal computers also seemed like frivolous toys. However, you make a very persuasive case.

And, to answer your final question, no, I don't really care. I grew up being lectured on how TV was the "idiot tube", so the idea of of society being full of people wasting their time is something I've gotten quite used to.

There are (at least) two meanings of "stupid" floating around here, morally stupid and commercially stupid. dcurtis seems to be thinking of commercial stupidity, i.e., "no one will ever buy/use this", but you're thinking of moral stupidity, or "this idea, if executed, will make the world a worse place."

They're not strongly correlated. Cigarettes are commercially smart and morally stupid. Charities, in some sense, are morally smart and commercially stupid, assuming they do good for the world and don't make a profit. As entrepreneurs, ideally we'd like to find something both morally and commercially smart.

Why not ask yourself "Is this idea stupid enough it might become successful?"

A lot of things we now take for granted started out as terribly stupid ideas. What use was a radio when there was only one radio station in town that operated a few hours a day? Why would I want an automobile that uses expensive gasoline and requires a mechanic when a horse is nearly free? Who, other than a Fortune 500 CEO, would want a phone in their car?

Yes, there's a lot of vapid ideas out there that are worthless, maybe too stupid to amount to anything, but a few crack through and are just the right kind of stupid they catch on in the hugest possible way.

It's like how a movie can be so bad it's good. Sometimes an idea is so stupid it's brilliant.

Of course non profits and major breakthroughs in health, equality and development are important.

But what's the point of life if you don't have art, joy, entertainment?

If you love art, what makes enjoying beautiful fashion, destinations, decor, creations somehow lessened and put into a bucket of fetishism.

My girlfriend loves Pinterest as a way to take a few minutes from her busy working schedule and relax and appreciate the beauty of the images and participate in a community.

I'd suggest countless millions of women around the world feel the same way.

Because Pinterest is not a platform for publishing art. It is comprised primarily of products and feeds directly into the consumeristic culture that pervades society. Those that are not products are nonetheless incredibly succinct and are displayed in such large volume and quick succession as to trivialize any artistic value derived from them. A picture of a latte or a beach in the Bahamas might be "art," but a thousand pictures displayed in a grid is superficial fetishization. It might be entertaining, and I don't fault anyone for enjoying Pinterest, but it certainly isn't contributing to the culture in a meaningful way.

> it certainly isn't contributing to the culture in a meaningful way

I can refute that directly. My wife uses Pinterest to learn about recipes, craft projects for her and our kids, cleaning tips. Sharing this information with your community is the definition of culture.

Social media is a huge value to a transplant family living in a far off city from their family all so the husband can work in his chosen field.

>it certainly isn't contributing to the culture in a meaningful way.

How do you define 'meaningful'? Pinterest has millions of users. It's contributing something to the culture, but whether or not it's 'meaningful' kinda gets into No True Scotsman territory.

The comments on hackernews are displayed in such a large volume and quick succession as to trivialize any intellectual value derived from them?

Well said.

I quietly dispair at the shortened attention spans and clamour for 'likes' and 'follows' that have resulted... Whilst I browse Instagram and refresh Facebook. I am a walking contradiction...

I like to blame "Loony Toons" for my short attention span.

>For every Watsi, we have a hundred bullshit companies with bullshit products,

Unfortunate, but true. Everything is suddenly an app. Is there a difference between 'social' startup and 'tech' startup? I think the culture, particularly the media, is making those synonymous for the worst...

Everything is suddenly an app because the world is rapidly moving to mobile, and mobile web is shitty.

In slightly related news, I am going to change the world... the pain point I will attempt to solve is... pain, physical pain... literally; if there is anyone interested in Colombia (not Columbia, Colombia, the country) who is an investor or an electrical engineer please get in touch (ivanca/gmail). I already have a functional prototype.

While I also feel somewhat alienated from all the 'innovation' that is occurring in the 'social space', I assume that Dustin does not, and when he thought 'this is a stupid idea' he was evaluating it according to his own measures of value, and by his measures of value, both vine and pinterest are great ideas. So, yes, he messed up.

But my own approach is to think that actually getting the energy to make anything in our culture that generally tries to separate the content creators from the content consumers is an amazing achievement, and I try to avoid diminishing peoples enthusiasm to make stuff even if I think it's dumb.

I gave up the idea of a start up and long time passion of building LED Displays, purely because I thought it would do no good to people than only encouraging more of capitalism. And it has been 5 years since I finished my studies and am still struggling in my career because most of the Cos don't excite me as all of them are more interested in making money rather than impacting the lives of people. This attitude of mine has been highly criticized by people around me, but I am proud of it. I would rather be working on a technology that impacts a villager or poor under privileged rather than designing a gizmo for the wealthiers. -Niral


"Tobacco has made a small number of people incomprehensibly rich, to the great detriment of humanity."

incredible isn't it how we still allow manufacturers to sells products (at considerable profit) like this that have been proven to make people ill, or at worse, die.

You would have to take a lot of products off the market if the fact that they can make people sick or kill people were the only criterion for doing so. Yes, cigarettes are a particularly dangerous combination: habit forming, enormous long-term harm, little short-term harm, etc. On the other hand, everyone who smokes knows that smoking is bad for them -- we have had a nationwide campaign to educate people, cigarette packs must have warnings of all sorts, cigar boxes and tubes come with warnings, and we show plenty of TV ads about the danger. I suspect that banning cigarettes would do little to prevent people from smoking them; you would just see an underground cigarette trade, and attempting to crack down on it would be as destructive as the rest of the war on drugs.

I think most of us agree that good ideas are solving problems. So could it be that cigarettes, Pinterest and Vine solve problems?

Maybe they do. Cigarettes are solving the problem of easy nicotine intake to release stress.

I think (not sure) a lot of successful new-media companies are solving the "low self-esteem" problem a lot of people cope with these days. They act like a drug.

But ofcourse a better way is to solve the source of the problems: remove stress from society, change culture in a way that we can become who we are (whole).

> I think most of us agree that good ideas are solving problems.

I'd agree that some good ideas (i.e. ideas that survive) are solving problems. But "solving problems" is only a (decent) heuristic for good ideas, not something that causes them to be good. Satellites stay in orbit by tricking laws of physics into not crashing them on the ground, and not because they're useful for us. In the same way, ideas survive by tricking social dynamics, not because they're solving some problems.

Cigarettes dont relieve stress, they induce it, the stress smoking relieves is craving a cigarette, people who dont smoke dont have that craving.

(someone currently giving up)

I agree except the cigarette example. I'm not a smoker, and think that smoking in public is annoying and it harms our health.

But at the same time, I personally love smoking tobacco when I go to a park for camping. Recommend you to try it smoking tobacco from a pipe with properly steeped ceylon tea in the middle of a forest where you can only hear the the nature and enjoy good tobacco.

> ...I'm not a smoker ... at the same time, I personally love smoking tobacco...

Wait, what...?

i just smoke once in 2-3 months.

You know what, that was surprisingly insightful.

Such idle distractions are quite popular world wide. It's definitely not limited to western nations.


What is a smart idea? Starting a company that goes on to eradicate world poverty or world hunger? Everything else is stupid?

We shouldn't be dismissing every company that is not a Watsi!

Hear, hear!

A few points, some already cited here:

* Survivor bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivor_bias) is yielding a self-selection in the positive results. I'm sure there are plenty of stupid ideas that went nowhere. Probably as much as "Great" ideas that went nowhere. So, I think saying that his opinion that something was stupid is a counter-indicator of its degree of success doesn't have much merit.

* Second, an idea or early prototype has little correlation to its inevitable success or failure. As is often said, execution is everything. The idea is necessary, but not sufficient to guarantee a market success, as defined differently by different markets.

* Third, while he decries his stance as calling something "stupid" as an arrogant position, this article itself comes across as arrogant -- in effect he's positioning himself near the beginning of these companies' inception and being in the position of being asked his opinion in a taste-maker fashion. I suspect in reality, he was one of many people that were exposed to this idea and his opinion was mostly irrelevant in their efforts to pursue the idea. It can be interpreted as very Forrest Gump to position ones self at the crux of so many eventual market successes when in reality that is not the case. I'd like to understand the context of these meetings. I've certainly been at the early-stages of many ideas, but no one asked for, or cared about, my opinions. In which case, saying that they were stupid ideas was an opinion offered only to myself. And I probably did indeed think they were stupid at the time. Was I arrogant? No. But then I don't claim that anyone cared about my opinion.

* Finally, I call your attention to Pinterest's actual success path (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinterest and http://www.famousbloggers.net/history-pinterest.html). They iterated and "failed" for 2 years before becoming an "overnight success". I dare say that perhaps at the time of the meeting, Pinterest's idea and execution were probably stupid, and it took time and relentless iteration to make it a success. In fact, "Silbermann said he personally wrote to the site's first 5,000 users offering his personal phone number and even meeting with some of its users." Which goes to show just how many people's opinions he solicited in the process of building to its current level of success.

The article isn't about Dustin being right or wrong, it's about the regrettable way he treated a fellow enterprising young person who was trying to start something.

It's really easy to dismiss and poke holes in peoples' ideas. The funny thing is that you usually walk away from that feeling pretty smart and full of yourself because you're mostly right.

Then you find out that you called it all wrong. And if you're introspective, you'll realize that you weren't just wrong in your thinking in the moment, you'll remember that you are actually a flawed, small person who knows very very little.

Early on, when I knew even less than I know now, I had a conversation with a guy named Gary Chou who then worked at USV. He's a model for me on how to treat a green person starting out. He didn't seem to be trying to answer the question, "does this suck?" or "can this be a $100M ARR business?" When we talked about what I was working on, he really sought to find out what was interesting about it, how people were using it, and what it could mean and become.

> It's really easy to dismiss and poke holes in peoples' ideas. The funny thing is that you usually walk away from that feeling pretty smart and full of yourself because you're mostly right.

Realistically, skepticism is the only rational response, considering the odds of a startup succeeding.

If you're at a roulette table, your friend plays number 32 and he asks you "Do you think 32 is coming out?", you should feel neither smug nor bad for saying "I doubt it": it's simple statistics.

Saying "I doubt this startup will succeed" is reasonable, but that's not the same as saying that a startup idea is stupid.

More importantly, startup returns aren't like roulette returns. Say we hold a friendly roulette game where the house doesn't take a cut (to simplify). If you bet $1 on every number you win nothing. On the other hand, if you're an angel investor and you bet on 100 startups, you win as long as a couple of startups hit big. Being wrong 95% of the time can really pay off.

Of course, what is rational depends on your goals. Some people get nothing even if they "believed" in an early startup. For example, it's possible OP wasn't a potential investor and as such wouldn't have gained much by holding a different belief about Pinterest anyway. Also, some stock analysts and tech journalists get away with making bad predictions, as they manage to point out only their good ones.

Not sure about your third point. It seems like he's genuinely echoing a point that's been made many times before: that good ideas can sound stupid at first. http://paulgraham.com/ideas.html

I don't think he's trying to show any superiority by telling us the details of how his conversations went about.

But I'm not sure about the merit of the position that expressing a strong opinion early on is a form of arrogance. If 90% of the time stupid ideas (as well as good ideas) simply don't pan out, then perhaps one can say that an opinion that something is "stupid" is not only unarrogant, but accurate. Then again, my point is that calling something stupid or smart really is largely irrelevant because the odds of success / failure are the same for ideas that are equally stupid and great. I'd like to see a post on the arrogance of calling something Great when it truly is not. That sort of hubris exists in equal quantities in the VC world.

I agree that one should give all ideas the possibility of success. But it's just human nature to judge things as stupid or smart. And as the animals that we are, our opinions largely don't matter in the grand scheme of the universe. Arrogant or not.

It's a bit uncharitable to call "I thought Pinterest and Vine were dumb" arrogance.

Yeah, I still think pintrest and vine are dumb, its just they have a lot of users.

Just because you think something is dumb doesn't mean it isnt a viable business model.

People sell virtual rubies to people building ruby houses all day every day, and that is dumb.

I agree.

I also still think they are dumb, and I think twitter is dumb too, fwiw. Things can be "dumb" (which in the context of describing a product/service is mostly subjective) and wildly successful.

I don't see why anyone would be surprised by this reasoning as it holds for tech/web companies just as well as it holds for popular music or popular tv shows -- there are many of each of these things that I think are dumb (which is to say, "not for me") and yet they are wildly successful.

I had the same comment below. Does popularity make up for it being stupid in the first place? So, because someone can get rich, does it mean his idea was right?

Well, maybe in a business sense, the idea was not wrong if you could gather enough fools to back you up, but that does not make it less of a stupid idea.

How does one define a stupid or smart idea? Do I have to chip away at world hunger for my idea to be smart? Or do I have make a billion dollars for my idea to smart? The production of the iPhone has contributed to the suicide of a lot of people. Is the iPhone a stupid idea? On what scale of success does an idea have to achieve? If Groupon only made a select few rich at the expense of others, was a smart idea on the founders part, or not? Does the founder really care, or does he regret it?

Given all these factors, its clear you can't have an objectively stupid or smart idea. I think the only right questions you can ask are "How are you going to execute on it?" and decide whether or not the founder is stupid or not. I'm not sure there are many people on the planet who can, given the idea for Instagram, sell it for a billion dollars.

At the end of the day all you really have is your confidence in an idea, and confidence in the founder's ability to execute on it. Knowing whether or not an idea is stupid really requires a sort of omnipotence on your part. Was it the right time? Instagram would be a stupid idea in 1995. Did the founder execute well enough? Was the market too small? There are too many variables that go into deciding whether an idea is "stupid" or not.

Hear hear. Don't get me started on Twitter.

True, but something about the way the story is told is very "humblebrag"-y. I can't quite put my finger on why.

Indeed, I am sure that it was (is?) a mainstream opinion. Perhaps less so in the majority, but not in the extreme.

> I think saying that his opinion that something was stupid is a counter-indicator of its degree of success doesn't have much merit.

I don't think that's what's Curtis is saying at all. He's just saying that it's better not to call startups ideas stupid prematurely, because we can't really tell.

That said, I think you make good points.

Is Pinterest even a profitable business? I recall that their site said they were still "figuring out" their revenue model. I can't be the only one that finds this appalling.

They've built a community that is obsessed with showcasing their lifestyle through their tastes and gazing longingly at consumer products. I think they have a few options.

I don't really approve of it, but recipe porn is less harmless than other ways to spend time on the internet.

> They've built a community that is obsessed with showcasing their lifestyle through their tastes and gazing longingly at consumer products. I think they have a few options.

It's exactly this sort of thinking that is the problem these days. They don't just "have a few options." If it were so easy, they would've done it by now. But it clearly isn't.

I'm assuming you mean "less harmful"?

In 1978 I thought Bill Gates trying to sell BASIC interpreters for what was 90% of the cost of the computer to run them was a pretty stupid idea :-)

That said, one of my VC friends defines an Entrepreneur as someone who can take a stupid idea and make it successful. Sort of an homage to the whole idea that they can see something you cannot.

These days when I'm confronted by this sort of proposal I ask the person making the proposal to describe the world where their idea has succeeded. What is different about that world from today, and what is the same. What do people do in that world that they do differently now or can't do at all. And perhaps more importantly what do they do today which they no longer have to do.

If you can paint that picture in enough detail you can figure out who is going to be working against this person and who is going to be cheering this person on, you might get a sense of how much work is between here and there and the kinds of people needed to do that work. And if you know this person well you might be able to guess whether or not they are up for that, or perhaps more importantly, committed enough.

I thought bottled water was idiotic "Who's gonna pay that for water ? ! ? Gone in six months." And phone sex lines. "1.99$ first minute, $.99 each additional minute? Please!" In six months their rates doubled. Business models can be hard to judge.

Both of those are very well-studied business models, though:

1. sell to the lonely and impulsive who are willing to trade money for attention (Also see: therapists, people who run cons on the elderly, everything else involving real interaction with a woman in the sex industry); additionally, take advantage of the sunk-cost bias to keep people after they would have otherwise "passed their limit" (Also see: casinos)

2. run advertising campaigns that separate the world into "good/beautiful/healthy/upper-class people" and "bad/ugly/disgusting/lower-class people" by which kind of products they use, then position yourself as the most convenient/eminently-consumable product in the "good people" product class. (Also see: deodorant, diamonds, hybrid cars)

can you give any example for deodorant? I mean I know diamonds are bullshit and hybrid gas cost equally much to produce as to use oil, but deodorant? If you don't use it, you stink, right?

If you take shower once a day (and after sport), you do not stink so much compared to a smoker.

Er, well throwing in "compared to a smoker" is a bit of a cheat... but body odor depends a lot on the person. I've known some people that could go ages without showering and still seem (and smell, even in close proximity) as fresh as a daisy, but others that always seemed to have an obvious, er, presence, daily shower or no.

This one hits home. 25 years ago I zigged into the water filtration business when I should have zagged in the bottled water business. I had the choice and never saw that businesses would pay so much to have water trucked to them. Doh!

true...if you talk to telecom hardware guys who have been around long enough, they will tell you most of the innovation that supports a whole lot of PBX/BPO/call center infrastructure happened thanks to the initial market created by those phone sex lines.

Amusingly, I've had the opposite problem: I see some things, think they are the best ideas ever and then watch them fizzle away.

Perhaps the largest example of this would be Wave. When I first heard about Google Wave, I was incredibly impressed and immediately signed up for the beta. I really did think it would replace email and IM--it was an elegant solution that did both, at the same time. I then played around with it, rather liked it and even got some friends to use it. I was still trying to use it well after almost everyone gave up on it.

I was rather disappointed in its ignominious decline and eventual death.

I also really liked webOS. All your apps would just be web apps! It would be great. It wasn't.

I really loved the Zune HD. It had one of the best interfaces I had ever seen and was incredibly capable for its price. I still have mine, and I still like it, mostly. I've had people on the subway ask me about it simply because they didn't know what it was :P.

I thought Gnome 3 was awesome and a gigantic step forward from Gnome 2. You could customize your entire environment, all in JavaScript. And yet almost nobody I know uses it. Unity may have gotten panned by internet critics, but at least plenty of people I know use it. Gnome 3? Maybe one person.

A disproportionate number of the things that I get really excited about--rather than just interested in--seem to fizzle out. Maybe it's just selection bias, of course. I imagine the contrast between my expectations and reality make things stand out more. But it does seem that the more enthusiastic I am about something the more likely it is to flop.

Right now, the technology that I'm really excited about in a very similar way is Rust. I hope it breaks this rather annoying trend! It's basically the only new programming language that I genuinely like and don't view as a waste of time and space. I honestly think it will take off, but that's what I thought about all the other examples too.

I guess this doesn't have much to do with the actual article. It's just a lament about my own misplaced enthusiasm. But it does feel better to have written about it :P.

The examples you listed died because of marketing, more than technology.

Wave was essentially a social network that your friends couldn't get invites for if they wanted. It was a hugely hyped ghost-town. Wave was a tech preview because it was ungodly slow and made some questionable UX decisions (like badly reimplementing the scroll bar) - Google would have been embarrassed to call it a fully-fledged product. At the same time, they hyped it up like one, which led many people to pass judgement on it too soon, while the ones who wanted to use it either couldn't get access or didn't know anyone who had access to write to.

webOS, from everything I've heard, was quite good. Unfortunately, the history of Palm didn't leave them enough resources to grow it organically - it was a high pressure do-or-die launch with rushed hardware that was universally panned. They didn't have enough resources to wait for good hardware to pair with it. They also banked on Verizon covering the marketing budget, but Verizon famously used Motorola's Milestone to launch the DROID brand instead. (There's a really interesting article from the Verge about it.)

I don't know enough about Linux or Zune to comment on those, but you got excited about webOS and Wave because you saw the promise of the vision. The execution is what bungled both.

Google Wave didn't die because of marketing.

It died because it was sloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow.

My problem with Wave was not that it was slow, but that it made me feel slow. I never got my head around the concept - I was never sure what it was trying to do, or why you would want to use it to do that. It felt like a tool designed by super-geniuses for other super-geniuses, something I was just too dumb to understand. I've heard many people say things like that about various computing-related technologies over the years, but Wave was the first time I could actually relate to it.

I thought Wave sounded amazing when it was first announced. When I finally got an invite to it, I have to admit, I was deeply underwhelmed with the user-facing implementation. It's probably the slowest, least responsive, web app I've ever used. It also felt way over engineered, with far too many unrefined ideas crammed into it.

That being said, I ended up being a big fan of it, hoping Google would eventually get around to fixing some of the obvious issues (they mostly didn't, though it did get slightly more responsive before it died).

Why was I fan? I didn't think of Wave as a thing to do, like Twitter (you tweet), or Facebook (you friend and post), or a blog (you write a journal)...there never was a way to "Wave", just like there isn't one way to "e-mail". It was just a new set of communication tools that you could assemble however you wanted.

It's no different than using e-mail to plan a party in one case or send photos to your mom in another case or applying for a job in another. E-mail is just a tool, the use-cases fall out of how you use that tool.

For some reason Wave seemed to look like a solution in search of a problem, but I ended up finding several existing things that were better solved in Wave than with the existing workflows. The most notable was organizing a group around collaboratively writing a large document. Structured correctly and the work just kind of "fell out".

The mistake with trying to use Wave was always in trying to use all of the features in Wave.

I really miss it and am very glad to see bits and pieces of the idea slowly percolating into other Google products (Drive for example).

Exactly that. I never understood what wave was supposed to do when it was released with much fanfare.

And I was at google then :-(

It died because even techies couldn't figure it out

It died because it denied the way human communication actually works.

Gnome 3 is far from dead compared to Zune HD (officially killed) or Google Wave (ditto). (Not sure about WebOS, I remember reading it was sold off.)

The primary reason you don't see it around is that Ubuntu has such a large market share of the desktop Linux and chose Unity as the default. And few people bother (or know about the possibility for that matter) to change from the default even though it's trivial (apt-get install ubuntu-gnome-desktop). But remember that Gnome 2 used to be the default and quite popular (i.e. everyone had it because everyone had Ubuntu).

Now of course, I'm biased - I got pissed off with Unity, tried bunch of various desktop environments and settled on Gnome 3 and I really like it. The dynamic creation & removal of desktops feels strange at first but is so convenient after a while that I miss it everywhere else.

This is fairly tangental but I love my Zune HD. Still use it every day and I wish I could buy more for backups.

Man, you have a veritable talent for liking half-baked ho-hum stuff!

I mean:

1) Google Wave -- a confused mess of a mail/im/web/social offering that didn't exactly knew what it was and solved non problems.

2) Gnome 3 -- Gnome 2 had languished for years. Why would 3 change that, especially since most of the changes planned were incremental ho-hum stuff combined with arbitrary rewrites of core technologies sure to take them years to complete?

3) Zune. Nuff said.

What a mean-spirited and off-base comment. "Nuff said"? The Zune guys were 6 years ahead of the rest of the business -- their UI & UX design work became the basis for Windows Phone, Windows 8/RT and Xbox today. Zune failed because it was an expensive MP3 player launched when MP3 players as a category were being consumed by more capable general purpose devices, not because it was half-baked.

>"Nuff said"? The Zune guys were 6 years ahead of the rest of the business -- their UI & UX design work became the basis for Windows Phone, Windows 8/RT and Xbox today.

Notice how you say that "The Zune guys were 6 years ahead of the rest of the business" and "it was an expensive MP3 player launched when MP3 players as a category were being consumed by more capable general purpose devices" (so, behind the rest of the business). It can't be both.

The whole product/ease of use/market/ecosystem etc (which is what matters) was subpar. And the market had much better products already.

Also, I'm not sure why you tout the Zune UI/UX work either. The only thing it had going for it was the visual look, not the feel or the interaction. So it was mostly a pretty graphic design, not a great UX. Same for Metro/Windows 8. It's not like that got any good reviews. Mostly a mismatch of traditional Windows and an out of place, and quite restricting and ill-thought touch UI. Oh, and it's not like Windows Phone got anywhere either. Nice looks, as a concept, but they forgot that design is how it works -- not how it looks.

/strong disagree

Zune & Zune HD had extremely favorable reviews, both from critics and customers. It was a solid product with a solid ecosystem. Engadget's review recommended it primarily on the Zune Pass and Zune Marketplace components. CNET called it "the best portable music and video experiences money can buy", while highlighting the subscription music integration. PC Mag's review called it "the best PMP you can buy outside the iTunes universe". This sentiment was industry-wide. There was nothing half-baked about it; that's not why it failed in the marketplace.

>Zune & Zune HD had extremely favorable reviews, both from critics and customers.

That was just the usual BS they pulled trying to get eyeballs by declaring an "iPod killer". Even the Dell Ditty got some favorable press under that premise.

Wouldn't base much on CNET, Engadget and PC Mag reviews, anyway.

The only thing I remember about Zune's reviews were everyone talking about how much the brown one looked like dog shit. Oh and how Zune is some kind of anti-Semitic slur. Oh, and how hilariously bad the tagline "Welcome to the [...ice cream...?] social" was. Hah, and I almost forgot that sharing content with other Zune owners was called 'squirting'. Classic.

It also didn't really help Microsoft that the only enthusiastic adopters of Zune were Apple haters that didn't have iPods but desperately wanted some piece of technology to develop an emotional attachment to.

I distinctly remember my friend's boyfriend (now ex-) making snarky comments about my iPod, then picking up a Zune and making remarks like "it's already more popular than the iPod," and other quips that were laughable even THEN.

Funny, I also knew I hadn't read a single good review from a reputable source, and I read Engadget a lot back then. They said the Zune sucked:


"We've got things we like, and things we don't; rough edges to go right along with the well thought-out niceties. We came away underwhelmed and not at all surprised -- and why? The expectations were for Microsoft to deliver a "Microsoft" player and system; maybe not too shabby looking, but not very usable, and definitely bug-ridden."

Also this hilarious play-by-play where Ryan couldn't even get the damned software to install:


Oh, and that glowing PCMag review you've generated from your nether-regions?


"When we tested the Zune market place the day of the launch, the store refused to let us log in, but the company seems to have worked out the bugs now."

"So to buy one song you need to pony up at least $5. This is irritating."

"The Zune software works pretty well, but the content offerings are nowhere near as robust as iTunes."

"We also found the battery life also a bit disappointing."

"If Microsoft can boost its battery life, broaden the video support, and make it easier to download podcasts, the Zune could provide some healthy competition to the iPod. Until then, the iPod will continue to reign supreme."

Zune failed because it failed to even be a good ripoff the iPod.

Some civility, please?

> Oh, and that glowing PCMag review you've generated from your nether-regions?

The quotes were quotes, you can search them to see where they came from.


It's quite consistent for a product to be ahead of the market in one respect and behind in others.

The moral of this isn't that stupid ideas are good. It's that unfamiliar insights can be hard to understand and recognize, even for smart people. The right question to ask when confronted with something new isn't "What's wrong with this?" It's "What's the most interesting new insight(s) here?" A lot of smart people like to ask the first question at the expense of the second, and that's a mistake.

There are so many things that seemed like a stupid idea to me:

- Seinfeld: Who is this guy, really?

- Frasier: Come on, a spinoff? (So, I didn't realize spinoffs were a thing)

- Twitter: Haiku and vanity plates for the Internet.

- Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream: Salty Caramel, you've got to be kidding me. I don't want salty ice cream.

- Arrested Development: Wait, Jason Bateman. He was so bland on The Hogan Family.

- There's Something About Mary: Their promo seemed ripped off the Zelda commercials, or that's how I felt.

- Blogging (Well, Live Journal): Do I really care what other people are doing?

- Scrubs: I don't know, I just didn't like the idea.

- Freaks and Geeks: How dare they try to explain what it was like to be adolescent me?

- McGriddles: Sausage, syrup and pancakes?

- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Slow animals doing karate makes no sense.

The only common thread I can find in these things is me. I have no idea why I had negative, visceral reactions to these things. It's gotten to the point where I try to pay special attention when an idea causes me to have this reaction.

Salted caramel has always been and will always be awesome.

Another deceptively awesome dessert is chocolate with pepper in it. Sounds weird, but its actually one of the original ways that cocoa was enjoyed.

What kills me about ice cream is the immense popularity of all of the stupid "Ben and Jerry's" style knock-offs that use a 10:1 candy:ice cream ratio. When I want to eat ice cream, it doesn't mean that I really want a candy bar.

It sure is. Jeni's Ice Cream also does some crazy stuff with pepper (Queen City Cayenne). I know she didn't invent the concept, but she does a heckuva job in the execution.

Totally agree on the "Ben and Jerry's" comment. I want really good ice cream first and foremost. If you can add a touch of something delightful to enhance the flavor, perfect. I feel the same way about cheese cake.

I don't know, most of those initial reactions make sense to me.

I think it's as simple as others are saying: in a market full of humans, making sense is not a dependency of success. and many of us justify the things that succeed after the fact.

If we're dismissing things for good reasons, I don't think we should try to inhibit our reasoning in order to just be less discriminating. Instead, the magic (or at least seemingly magic to engineers such as myself, when it works) of marketing is to account for and scrutinize based on the irrational.

To be fair, McGriddles have always been available with bacon, which makes all the difference to me. Good list though.

That's an awesome list.

Ha, I still think Vine and Pinterest are stupid ideas. But, Pinterest at least has done a good job at making lazy, vapid, narcissism easy, and there's certainly demand for that. Not sure how you monetize it (is Pinterest?), but they have a lot of users.

I'm not sure Vine is yet a "success". I don't see a lot of activity there yet. My (completely biased and limited) litmus test for social apps is to see how many of my non-techie friends get on board and how quickly. With Facebook, Instagram, and even Pinterest, that was pretty quick. Vine seems to still be lagging. It's too much work for the payoff for most people, is my gut feeling.

lazy, vapid, narcissism

Care to elaborate? My interpretation of Pinterest is really "visual social bookmarking."


The main use of Pinterest is to show your friends and everyone else what good taste you have. "Look at this collection of bridal dresses I like!" "Check out all these vacation spots I want to go to!"

If you just wanted to collect photos of these things to give yourself ideas, you wouldn't need to share it with everyone. So you have an easy way to show everyone how cool all the stuff you like is, and by extension you are, with very little effort on your own part to actually create or realize (i.e. actually do work) those things into being. Sure there are elements of this across all social networks, but Pinterest has really distilled it down to the lowest common denominator point and click.

More of an indictment of society than of Pinterest itself I suppose. Pinterest or something like it was bound to show up sooner or later.

I can't help but feel this is just an uncharitable way to describe sharing ideas in general. My fiancee and I have gotten a lot of good use out of other people's good taste on Pinterest — we've found outfits to steal for the wedding, decorating ideas and lots of tasty recipes. How is this any more vulgar than sharing ideas in any other context?

I think my sister actually uses it more like Reddit, as a source of interesting (mostly funny) things to look at.

Lagging?? Vine has grown fastest out of all of the social networks you mentioned within my group of non-techie friends. All I see on my Twitter feed is Vine links. All anyone talks about in person is whether we're going to 'Vine' whatever we're doing. Maybe this is just my group of friends though (early 20s).

Will Sasso alone has over 250k followers and the app has been live for like, a little over two months now? I'd say it's growing pretty rapidly.

While I can't speak for your personal experiences I've noticed that Vine is becoming increasingly popular with my High School classmates (I'm a sophomore). Many of my friends I wouldn't necessarily consider "techie" found Vine and are enjoying it. Maybe age is playing a role in its adoption?

That is entirely possible. I think it still comes down to how much work it is for the payoff, but perhaps the payoff is bigger as a high school student where these things can have more of an effect on social status than they do to the late 20s/early 30s set*

* I hope that doesn't come off as too condescending to HS students, I certainly don't mean it to be!

>* I hope that doesn't come off as too condescending to HS students, I certainly don't mean it to be!

I think that it's exactly the right kind of condescending to high school students. An environment where something like Vine can significantly effect your popularity is probably so toxic that only scum can breathe in it.

That didn't come off as condescending to me at all, I appreciate the comment. I'm not entirely sure if my classmates use it to gain popularity or simply use it for fun but then again I'm not exactly "popular" myself so I'm not sure.

Look back at every social network success, and you'll see this kind of confused, dismissive condescension, before, during, and even after the product is adopted by millions of normal humans.

Vine is a good idea and doesn't really infringe on your privacy so I approve of it. Pinterest is just pointless.

I first met the AirBnB guys in 2007, at their "unofficial Startup School after party". It was my first ever San Francisco startup party.

At the time, they were in the depths of their existential struggle. The "party" consisted of a few guys, a couple of liters of soda, and a few half-empty bottles of booze.

I remember talking to Joe and Brian, and hearing their pitch, and thinking: "oh, so it's like couchsurfing, but for pay....good luck with that, guys".


The only reason why people are willing to pay AirBnB is because of their audience (classic chicken&egg dilemma). But that audience was initially captured/harvested mostly through illegal or semi-legal ways (at least the ways that a decent human being wouldn't do that).

Lookup my previous posts I rant enough about AirBnB owners and their criminal past.

This blog post reminds me of the Bessemer Venture Partners "Anti-Portfolio" -- a list of companies they passed on that subsequently became massively successful, including Apple, Google, and Intel.

They explain on their website: "Our reasons for passing on these investments varied. In some cases, we were making a conscious act of generosity to another, younger venture firm, down on their luck, who we felt could really use a billion dollars in gains. In other cases, our partners had already run out of spaces on the year's Schedule D and feared that another entry would require them to attach a separate sheet."

The whole web page is filled with similar, painfully funny explanations: http://www.bvp.com/portfolio/antiportfolio

I more often experience the facepalm of watching an uncomplicated idea turn into a global sensation.

It's 2005 (hardly the distant technological past), and someone gets the idea for a site where you can store and watch videos. This is not some kind of radical technological innovation. This is not something beyond the ambit of current capabilities. This is not some brazen insight into the future. This is a site. Where you store videos. And watch them.

This, of course, is YouTube -- a site that was eventually sold to Google for $1.6 billion dollars.


Well, to be sure the magic ingredient in Youtube's success was not the idea of uploading and watching videos. Many people were working on video sharing at that time (myself included). Youtube's secret was that the founders were already successful entrepreneurs who were well connected to VC's. Thus they had access to the capital that allowed them to lose ungodly amounts of money in the quest for growth.

Well, they also had an impressively cavalier attitude to copyright. Which was a major advantage.

But they also had excellent design sense. YouTube made uploading, viewing, and sharing content very, very easy. I did some consulting for a semi-competitor, so I paid a lot of attention to the market then. YouTube did a great job, which helped them get users, which surely didn't hurt with VCs.

Also, Crunchbase says they took $3.5m from Sequoia to start, and then $8m a few months later, and my recollection was that later tranche was really just to spend on bandwidth and servers. Google bought them a few months later. So they didn't lose what I'd call ungodly amounts of VC money; that's less than 1% of what Facebook received before IPOing.

Yes, I should have mentioned the copyright issue. The Napster lawsuits were still fresh in people's memory, and I'm sure a lot of entrepreneurs and and VC's were frightened of starting a video sharing site that was so openly being used to share copyrighted clips.

Youtube was acquired very quickly (within a year of public launch), so total losses were of course much lower than Facebook. But due to the bandwidth costs, YouTube had to burn a half-million+ a month very quickly after launch. Not many entrepreneurs are connected enough to get that kind of cash so quickly. Facebook could grow the site while spending only in the low five digits, without needing to quickly raise a large venture round.

Also, their exit and sale to google was perfectly timed. As copyright started to loom on their future, they got bought by deep pockets.

Man, that sucks. Win a game like that, and you never have to have another idea as long as you live.

I worked for a time at a startup whose claim to fame was "We almost got bought by Google before they chose YouTube"

YouTube wasn't alone. They just won the lottery and nobody remembers all the others who disappeared.

Of course, the flipside is maybe more dangerous. "Hey, this sounds like a really stupid idea... then again, I thought pinterest sounded stupid too, and look how that turned out. Ok dubious business opportunity, here's my time/money!"

I'm being facetious of course, but the best deals are often the ones you don't make. The real question is how much of an impact an anomalous success story should have on the way you evaluate business opportunities.

Those were stupid ideas. Nobody said stupid ideas couldn't be successful. In fact, I suspect an idea's stupidity has very little impact on its success one way or another.

Ideas I'd consider not stupid include self-driving cars, Google Glass, and Bitcoin. Whether or not those are good ideas is yet another discussion…

Smart ideas are very hard to implement. I always go for the stupid ideas because they also fail faster

I am glad that these two guys truly believed in their ideas and where not discouraged by your lack buy-in to their vision.

I am often reminded of the 2001 me. When I was new developer building java web applications and full of vigor with no real responsibilities or expenses.

I was dead set on this idea to build a site where people could post links, pictures, text or whatever and it would be voted and categorically managed by the user community.

I shopped the idea and prototype around to people in my limited network and it was unanimous that no one would ever want to invest time into this concept. Discouraged, I scrapped the idea and accepted a position as the first non-partner employee at a consulting start-up that quickly imploded.

Years later reddit moves to the forefront of the internet with striking resemblance to my original plan.

My fault because I did not stick to my guns. The idea that my application could have been half as popular as reddit is unlikely but it taught me a lesson, sometimes you've got to trust your gut, even if the people you trust cannot see your vision.

If you had told me 5-6 years ago that Twitter would be one of the top social media platforms and have 500 million registered users, I would have been completely flabbergasted.


I always picture myself in the following situation: A guy comes into my office in 2005, and says: "Uhm, excuse me, we're looking for investors in our new great product. It's for sending messages!" - "You mean, like email?" - "Yes. Except, you only have 140 characters." - "Err?" - "Oh, and you can't determine who will receive the message." - "Excuse me?" - "Yes, that's right. Would you like to invest?"

I would have laughed that guy out of my office back then...

...and now he'd be laughing at me.

Thus I'm very glad, no-one ever comes to my office in real life.

The End.

Twitter has the odd phenomenon of being a private company that news media has to constantly publicly refer to. Even to the point of some articles printing what an unrelated no-name had to say about the event in question. It's bizarre, though it seems also to be in part a lazy way to get 'bystander comments'.

Survivor bias? How many ideas has he thought were stupid, and then they went nowhere?

In all fairness, Pinterest still looks like a stupid idea. Like Twitter. Like Instagram.

Stupid is popular, though. You don't need to build more than the most mundane of the things to have a popular product.

A well-written humblebrag.

Ain't nobody humblebrag like Dustin Curtis humblebrags.

- 309 points and 108 comments - comments about the "vapid" and "useless" nature of Pinterest and Vine - absolutely no discussion about how there's no takeaway from the post aside from "I'm so important that I blew off two of these successful guys."

I was really expecting some kind of goal that he'd set for himself or way to improve his pessimistic attitude. Oh well.

It reads that way a little but as a front-end dev I've had sit-downs with a few founders trying to hire me and in some cases I thought their ideas were stupid. It didn't seem like they wanted my opinion on their idea as much as they wanted to get me excited about the future they are trying to create.

Turns out one of them succeeded in a sense.

That's the founders' job though. They don't hire developers to critique their strategy, they hire them to implement it.

I felt the same way about Wikipedia at first. An encyclopedia that anyone can edit? What could possibly go wrong?

I thought Twitter was a solution looking for a problem too. Interestingly, Twitter's usefulness (at least for me) stems from it's popularity rather than its content. Pretty much everyone I care about listening to is there, but most of the tweets that I'm interested in link me to some place that isn't Twitter.

I think a big issue with social network ideas is just that there's so much chance involved.

Maybe 1 in 100 that have a solid idea and strong execution are going to achieve the critical mass they need for success. It really just comes down to achieving trendiness, which though it can be engineered to some extent and depends to some extent on quality and uniqueness, is still fraught with chance and ultimately depends whether a product happens to appeal to the particular whims of enough people with above average influence simultaneously enough to create momentum and buzz. A few missing links in that chain can sink the ship, while catching the right eye in the right way can ensure global adoption.

So having a negative attitude toward them all is safe in the sense that you'll almost always be right, and you'll be constantly reinforced in your beliefs. But since startup investment is a game of long shots, like most +EV gambling games, an investor shouldn't be focused on the absolute probability of success but on the chance of success * the potential value.

The key to success is not in the idea itself, but rather the execution of the idea. The idea is only a multiplier to the level of success.

I feel this way about almost all consumer web services.

Nothing is better than irc, usenet, MUDs, and email/lists, with the exception of making things mobile, detachable/multi device, more secure, and I guess supporting non Latin alphabets. There are still a few products missing from the perfect Internet (a great usenet/forum replacement, a way to run individual agents in the background, a way to great all communications as filter ably as email, and a great payment system), but I'm fine without another catalog sharing site, etc.

I accept that consumer services could become popular, but I have no way to predict it, and once they have traction, they are expensive investments. I am kind of at a loss as to how one could be a high value add investor in the seed consumer space without just focusing on founders nearly exclusively.

I had a similar experience when I was 14 years old. At the time I was running a very popular trivia web site that had been featured on Yahoo and in a few magazines. A guy e-mailed me and said he liked my site. He asked if he could pay me a small fee to run a banner ad for his new business. I told him I appreciated the offer, but I didn't think it was allowed under the Geocities terms of service.

I was really into discovering new web sites at the time and had not heard of this company. I looked at the guy's site to see what it was about. I remember thinking it was ugly design and a stupid idea. Not much longer after that, the company began to take off. The guy that had e-mailed me was Pierre Omidyar and the site was EBay. I've tried to look at new businesses with an open mind since then.

We built an app that 'listens' to social media and closely correlates with the S&P 500 http://elite.kredstreet.com/all (zoom in to see the correlation) You have no idea how many people have ignored us along the way and yet our signal will be used by high frequency traders to trade the stock market. Talking to investors often reminds me of this gem... http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7203877/fundraising

EDIT: someone just emailed me and said this was stupid. LOL

Reminds me of 'How my brain kept me from co-founding Youtube' (http://prog21.dadgum.com/39.html)

The idea that people were going to push around 500k images (Flickr) or even more insane, videos was crazy when it first started happening. Remember how long it took to download QuickTime or RealPlayer videos, and how bad the quality was? Now people are streaming HD music videos on our PHONES just to listen to it while they drive to work. They don't even watch the video.

Ideas I thought were stupid when I first heard them:

1) eBay - people are going to buy from random people they don't know? and bid against other people they don't know? Auctions will be rigged and I won't get my stuff. Stupid.

2) Netflix - they are going to send DVD's in the mail and I am going to mail them back? And then I have to wait for it to get to me? Aren't people going to steal the DVD's and damage them? Won't it cost too much for them to make a profit? Why don't I just go to Blockbuster? Stupid.

I wonder how honest Dustin was to Ben and Dom. It's entirely possible that his negative feelings about each product helped drive it further. Sometimes criticism is more important than praise. I would rather someone call my product stupid - and point out why - than to just say, "Yea, it's okay I guess."

To Ben and Dom's credit, I have a feeling both saw Dustin's apathy, read it correctly as apathy, and used that to either strengthen their products, or their story, or both.

In 2008/2009 I was browsing Brian Gossett's website http://since78.briangossett.com/ . Back then he had a digital mood board, which was simply a giant collection of JPG files on a white background with appropriate spacing. I saw these same mood boards on other websites - usually belong to designers. Some things hit me while browsing that website.

Wouldn't it be awesome if there was a service that let you...

  - easily bookmark content from the web onto your personal "mood board", 
    probably using a booklet.
  - organize that content into collections
  - share it with a social network built around the original idea.
I shit you not, even my original design (which was mainly white on white) looked like Pinterest. I quit on it because I couldn't program at all.

I've had multiple experiences since where I thought of something and then something similar either already exists or it shows up soon after. The Pinterest example was the most extreme though, because I really had a copy of Pinterest (minus the identity ofc) in my mind and on paper. What this taught me is that I have a brain that is capable of thinking up stuff that is apparently wanted [1] and as such it has boosted my confidence. At the end of the day, the person who wins is the person who executes. Execution is key.

[1] Allow me to be very careful here. I may suffer from cognitive bias causing me to discount the amount of ideas that I've had that are probably absolutely shit, but in my own defence I'm the first person to shoot down my ideas. Also, knowing what the market wants requires you to test your assumptions. I'm well aware of this.

Even if you could have coded Pinterest, that's just the beginning.

Every killer idea is stupid until success betrays its obviousness. Most inspired ideas are probably stupid. And finally, many ideas are just plain stupid. The trick is to ignore your gut reaction and ask yourself, "If this amazingly stupid idea is executed perfectly, is there a real market for this?" Women "pinning" their desires? Check. People sharing incredibly easy-to-compose video? Check.

Don't confuse the dancer with the dance.

>I want to make an app for browsing catalogs. It's like a fashion catalog, but you can organize and share outfits

Is this really a fair description of Pinterest today though? Maybe as originally described it is a dumb idea.

Vine, on the other hand, is really awesome and Curtis saw it right then, but was more worried about how it would find popularity rather than whether it was a "good" idea.

That seems to be pretty much how my wife uses pinterest. Outfits and gardening.

"I'm not sure if there's any lesson here other than a warning against arrogance, but I have two stories to share."

Of course there is. You mentioned it yourself!:

"The future is extremely hard to see through the lens of the present, and it's very easy to unconsciously dismiss the first versions of it as frivolous or useless. Or as stupid ideas."

What I generally dislike with these articles is that someone quickly draw the conclusion "never criticize, always believe in the idea, even if it seems stupid at first sight"

And of course, I find that terribly wrong. The author did not hint that at all (which I appreciate), however, but I still believe many will think this.

The point is that you must carefully examine each idea before jumping to a judgement. Do not dismiss the bad points. Just think it through. It wont work every time, because you're not perfect, and because you don't have all elements/cards in your hands (unless you can see the future and read people's mind, of course). All you can do is a best guess. Obviously, the author is either very unlucky, either bad at doing the best possible guess.

After about two decades in 'new media' I've seen and been part of some rather stupid ideas too. Off the top of my head: - business card cd-roms: I was working on rights for Canada at one point - Flash vs. Director: I was a Director guy and thought Flash was stupid; but it sure had it's day vs. Director - Digital Signage: I had worked out a couple prototypes using CRT monitors and Mac LC pizza boxes installed in integrated cases with a modem for both control and new content. All controlled with a slick little Director application - A chat program that used proximity and interest matching to bring people together. Prototype was pretty cool for 1998 :-)

There are probably some others, but I love stupid ideas, they make things interesting.

I thought Twitter was stupid when it came out. "Why would any one choose to limit themselves to 140 characters? Also the name is dumb and childish. 'tweet'? Who wants to 'tweet'? I'm a grown man, I don't want to 'tweet...' etc."

I still don't know why Instagram is a thing.

I could never take a good picture. I used Instagram for the first time and it was fast, so easy, and I was actually proud of the interesting pictures I could take (not necessarily to share widely, but at least for myself). Instagram got someone like me, who never carried a camera in his life except for when I was kid holding a camera for my parents on vacation, to actually use their phone as a camera.

Ok, that makes sense.

A stupid population makes stupid things popular.

How could you not see how Instagram is a thing? You can take a picture then press few buttons and now everyone you know can see your picture. If you don't see how that is popular maybe the problem isn't with Instagram.

And people couldn't share photos online before?

I can see how it's popular. I just don't see why it's as popular as it seems to be.

And obviously i'm not arguing the problem is Instagram, since this is a thread about not being able to see why ideas take off. Clearly I just don't get it.

But really. Did these entrepreneurs really understand what they were building at the time?

Is it the case that these people articulated the best case for their products and businesses when Dustin saw introduced to these projects in their infancy?

Developing a product, and the right pitch is an evolutionary process, and it may just very well be the case that Dustin encountered them too early.

He may very well be at fault for thinking these ideas were stupid at the time, but then again he might very well not be.

Being introduced to a work in progress is always a negotiation. Asking the right questions is part of it, and on the flip side, having an interlocutor who has some sense of how to answer your questions.

Also, some ideas are just stupid.

> The future is extremely hard to see through the lens of the present

And the past is hard to see without the lens of hindsight warping things. A decision might look silly in the face of information from the future, but that doesn't mean it was the wrong decision at the time. It wasn't. You made the rational play and you happened to lose. Your information was just incomplete. And unlike the founders who ended up winning, you had no incentive to assume the gaps would be filled in with magic traction and a bag of money.

Several years ago, I was reading a blog by a well known tech entrepreneur. He was describing his new project, a way for people to post their everyday life actions in 140 characters or less, so they could tell their friends they were going to the store, or what they had for lunch. I thought, what a stupid idea, only the vainest self-absorbed people would share such minute details of their life. His project was called Twitter.

I think this happens because we're poor judges of character. Yes, there's many bozos out there, but if you ask enough questions you will be able to differentiate them.

I'm still working on this, but I've seen that if you put aside your preconceptions and try to understand the product that is being showed to you, using it, asking a lot of questions and really giving yourself some time for big picture conversation, you are able to tell them apart.

However. Its not because its popular that its not stupid.

At first I expected this to be a post about svbtle and all of the resistance and pushback Dustin received when he first showed us his new "blog" design and tried to explain his vision. Things seem to be picking up on that front and the content is fairly good.

Can we get an iPad or web app with an easier way to explore and stumble through "magazine articles" without knowing who or what we are looking for?

It may not be that the ideas are 'stupid' per-se. It's just that we tend to underestimate how complex some tasks are for ordinary people.

I mean, I could take thousands of pictures and automate the process of applying photoshop filters and uploading them as they arrive - and I bet most of you could do it too, perhaps in some even cooler way. That'd be just black magic for most people.

I still do this - it's something I'm actively trying to fix. I'm worse still when products never materialize into a full-fledged success, still seem mvp/alpha but provide enough interest and income to spin up a proper shop here and there.

I think the root of it, for me at least, is just a bit of envy staring down at me from my shelf of half-completed and less interesting ideas.

This is simply a vehicle for the author to show off about how he was consulted by well-known startups before they were big. These articles by dcurtis are a very ugly portrait of San Francisco tech culture. For example it beggars belief that this one was not written as a parody: http://dcurt.is/the-best

As people have already said, this is a ridiculous case of survivor bias and to be fair, they are kind of stupid ideas. One is basically bookmarks, but with a nice UI and sharing, and the other is a kind of poorly made way to share short video clips. I met a kid making a video sharing app that was miles better just last week.

I'll confess something similar, but a bigger whiff on my part.

Wifi was becoming common when I entered college. Around that time, laptops were underpowered, especially compared to desktops.

I thought wifi was a fad. After all, you generally had to plug your laptop in after 2 hours. What was the big deal about a cable for network too?

Curtis was right about Pinterest though.

I guess I'm missing what you mean, could you elaborate? What I got was that "a 20-something guy" reached a target market that he was not a part of, and did very well at it too.

Sounds like it was a completely different product when he was consulted anyway

I like the first line on the last paragraph - "The future is extremely hard to see through the lens of the present."

What we do in the present can affect the future but we can not predict what will actually happen. There's too much variables involved.

Arrogant? Yes, if you thought you could figure out that they would succeed or not based on one conversation.

The point of this entry is really: as an entrepreneur, push forward independent of what people who are not you target customer say/think.

I've had this happen to me a few times. These days I don't even get the stupid ideas in the first place anymore. So I guess I don't have to feel so bad about missing the opportunities now. There aren't any!

Dustin, let's meet at The Creamery. I gotta stupid idea to show you :)

Stupid idea doesn't mean it's not gonna make money. Great idea doesn't mean it's gonna make money. It's damn near impossible to predict what the public is gonna like.

I'd have dismissed the facebook idea if zuckerberg would've came to me in the beginning. There were myspace, hi5, orkut and a few other already on the market.

In the early 1980s, CompuServe's marketeers thought the CB Simulator was dumb. It brought in most of the money. Here we are in 2013 and there's Twitter.

It's a mistake to relate the stupidity of an idea to its potential for success. And yet even with success they can remain stupid and you can remain right.

This article highlights the few times he was wrong. But what about all the lunches where he left thinking 'what a stupid idea' and was right.

And lo! pg did spake! "Only the good ideas that look like bad ideas are left. All the good ideas that look like good ideas have been done."

"Everything is obvious once its successful. Big wins come when you can spot something before its obvious to everyone else." -ev williams.

There are no stupid ideas.

Except the really stupid ones, of course.

I think the key point isn't if an idea stupid or smart. It seems to me the key point is more like how you execute the idea.

Well, between Pinterest and Vine demos - how many times you were actually right about other, really stupid ideas? :)

Ha! I've heard a lot of stupid ideas and none of them have made a dollar!

Very well argued indeed. I'm glad someone shares the same thoughts as me.

I just Kudos'd all your articles just because the button is so awesome :)

I felt the same way about twitter. I also still think I was right :-)

So what are the other two ideas?

if someone i respect says something stupid, its probably not.

this is why signaling is so important.

I know the feeling. For me it was in the stock market. I had a chance to invest a substantial amount in gold about 13 years ago with someone who wanted to dump his gold stocks at a discounted price. I scoffed at the idea and thought it was stupid. Well, we all know how that turned out....

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