The idea maze

The pop culture view of startups is that they’re all about coming up with a great product idea. After the eureka moment, the outcome is preordained. This neglects the years of toil that entrepreneurs endure, and also the fact that the vast majority of startups change over time, often dramatically.

In response to this pop culture misconception, it has become popular in the startup community to say things like “execution is everything” and “ideas don’t matter”.

But the reality is that ideas do matter, just not in the narrow sense in which startup ideas are popularly defined. Good startup ideas are well developed, multi-year plans that contemplate many possible paths according to how the world changes. Balaji Srinivasan calls this the idea maze:

A good founder is capable of anticipating which turns lead to treasure and which lead to certain death. A bad founder is just running to the entrance of (say) the “movies/music/filesharing/P2P” maze or the “photosharing” maze without any sense for the history of the industry, the players in the maze, the casualties of the past, and the technologies that are likely to move walls and change assumptions.

Imagine, for example, that you were thinking of starting Netflix back when it was founded in 1997. How would content providers, distribution channels, and competitors respond? How soon would technology develop to open a hidden door and let you distribute online instead of by mail? Or consider Dropbox in 2007. Dozens of cloud storage companies had been started before. What mistakes had they made? How would incumbents like Amazon and Google respond? How would new platforms like mobile affect you?

When you’re starting out, it’s impossible to completely map out the idea maze. But there are some places you can look for help:

1) History. If your idea has been tried before (and almost all good ideas have), you should figure out what the previous attempts did right and wrong. A lot of this knowledge exists only in the brains of practitioners, which is one of many reasons why “stealth mode” is a bad idea. The benefits of learning about the maze generally far outweigh the risks of having your idea stolen.

2) Analogy. You can also build the maze by analogy to similar businesses. If you are building a “peer economy” company it can be useful to look at what Airbnb did right. If you are building a marketplace you should understand eBay’s beginnings. Etc.

3) Theories. There are now decades of historical data on tech startups, and smart observers have sifted through to develop theories that generalize that data. Some of these theories come from academia (e.g. Clay Christensen) but increasingly they come from investors and entrepreneurs on blogs.

4) Direct experience. A lot of good startup founders figure out the maze through direct experience, often at work. The key here is to put yourself in interesting mazes and give yourself time to figure it out.

The metaphor of a maze also helps you think about competition. Competition from other startups is usually just a distraction. In all likelihood, they won’t take the same path, and the presence of others in your maze means you might be onto something. Your real competition – and what you should worry about – is the years you could waste going down the wrong path.

101 thoughts on “The idea maze

  1. Another reason I think it’s safe to share your ideas is that most people (especially previous founders in same space) are just to damn tired, lazy, or intimidated to take another run at the same/similar space.

  2. Phenomenal post, Chris. Especially “history” and “analogy”. Learn, THEN do. Much easier said than done, and it’s a constant process, but it’s the best way not to repeat the mistakes your ancestors made, while building on their successes.

    And then killing them :)

  3. Eli Colner says:

    I think working on what you love rather than what other people think is smart is probably another fine strategy to navigate the maze.

    “So welcome to my life: no two days the same
    Like for y’all to meet the love of my life her name’s the game”

    - Young Jeezy

  4. Great advice – and with all that nothing, beats execution. Ideas don’t create great companies. Most great ideas fail. Few great teams that flawlessly execute fail. Execution is the greatest barrier to entry for competition.

  5. I think there is a lot of value in looking at the companies that came before you and instead trying the opposite approach instead of just learning where they went wrong. You could argue that the reason Dropbox succeeded was because they were in the right place at the right time, but I also think it was because they did a lot of things different from the numerous companies that came before them.

  6. Balaji’s paper is spectacular and so insightful. I’d put it on par with Lean, as seminal / foundational education for entrepreneurs.

    The depth of the idea matters so much. Outsiders remember the end-point, but the road is typically meandering at best.

  7. sigmaalgebra says:

    We need to understand that successful
    information technology (IT) startups,
    especially the ones that make headlines,
    are rare. Indeed there is a recent quote
    from Mark Andreessen that each year there
    are only 10-15 projects worth venture
    funding (it’s not clear if he meant all IT
    projects or just enterprise IT projects).
    A post of Fred Wilson at his AVC pointed
    out the low ROI of IT venture capital.
    Some remarks at the Web site of Peter
    Thiel’s venture firm laments the lack of
    major projects. From such thinking, we
    can conclude that there is a serious
    problem using

    “The pop culture view of startups”

    and

    “There are now decades of historical data
    on tech startups”

    to evaluate a startup proposal.

    So, by a simple analogy, that pop culture
    view and those decades of historical data
    constitute one huge pile of hay.
    Somewhere in there were some golden
    needles. Then, looking at the hay gives
    nearly no insight into the golden needles
    in the hay and even less insight into the
    ‘next big’ golden needle.

    A fundamental problem is the whole idea of
    a startup ‘idea’: This is encouraged to
    be essentially just a very short, high
    level description as would give a
    prospective user/customer. Next, in IT
    the assumption is that the rest is
    essentially just routine software.

    Occasionally this approach works, e.g.,
    PInterest, SnapChat, but the odds are
    long.

    What’s wrong? The ‘idea’ from a straw in
    that pile of hay does not aim high enough.
    The technology of routine software is
    necessary but not nearly sufficient –
    typically more is needed.

    Is there a better way? Definitely yes;
    rock solid, well proven, going back at
    least many decades. The better way is
    mostly just in how to do projects such as,
    Hoover Dam, the Edison electric light
    bulb, GPS, and many more.

    To adapt this better way to IT startups:

    (1) Problem. Think of a problem to be
    solved such that the first good or a much
    better solution will he a “must have” for
    many millions of users to which can
    display ads or to enough customers who
    will pay enough to make a good business.
    The best example, although not in IT,
    would be a safe, effective, cheap,
    patentable one pill to cure any cancer.

    For this “must have”, want the proposed
    solution definitely to pass the KFC test
    – “Finger lickin good.”. That is, want
    no doubt about “must have”. For such a
    problem we can expect that finding the
    first good or a much better solution will
    be challenging.

    May have to consider more than one problem
    to find one such problem.

    (2) Solution. Much of the “must have”
    will be made real by the solution. Likely
    need means of solution that are especially
    powerful, i.e., likely need some ‘secret
    sauce’. Edison? He got the idea for a
    tungsten filament from the English chemist
    Swan and the idea for a sufficiently good
    vacuum pump from a guy in Germany. GPS?
    It’s awash in ‘secret sauce’, that is,
    some quite advanced work in physics and
    applied math.

    If can’t find the needed solution, then
    may have to return to (1) and try again.

    It is better, and in some cases important
    or even essential, that the solution
    provide a barrier to entry, and one way to
    do this is to do some good original
    research with some advanced prerequisites.
    Since we are in IT, typically the
    prerequisites have to be in applied math,
    e.g., the signal processing math in the
    new SnappyCam (by a guy with a quite
    relevant Ph.D.).

    And for such applied math, it’s better if
    it is just locked up inside a server farm
    and, thus, invisible outside.

    With good work on (1) and (2), it should
    be possible to write a good project
    planning document, and with such a
    document the execution should be largely
    routine, predictable, and low risk. E.g.,
    the LHC at CERN.

    This way of running projects doesn’t try
    to get credibility for low risk or high
    gains from pop culture or a long, merely
    empirical history of largely irrelevant
    startups.

    Again, the high gains and low risk we are
    looking for are rare and, thus, nearly
    impossible to see just empirically in a
    rear view mirror.

    E.g., the LHC project didn’t depend on
    either pop culture or mere empirical
    history and, instead, depended on some
    really solid work in physics and
    engineering. The LHC project was
    essentially the first of its kind and
    astoundingly complex yet low risk.

    Yes, the USAF GPS borrowed from the US
    Navy’s earlier system, but it was the
    first of its kind and high gain and low
    risk.

    But IT startup projects are not run this
    way. The problems are not important
    enough. The solution technology is not
    powerful enough. A solid planning
    document is not written. So, the risk is
    high; on average the ROI is poor; and get
    another Google or Facebook only a few
    times a decade. Bummer. Silicon Valley
    should be deeply embarrassed.

  8. Great post; it seems that flexibility of thought paired with commitment and knowledge for a specific problem is a sweet spot. I suspect the challenge for VC’s is to not seek entrepreneurs pursuing (and insisting on) a clear path forward, but rather ones that are constantly recalibrating the compass?

    And perhaps obsession for solving a problem is more important than conviction for a single solution?

  9. Yeah, I’ve got a story about this… Met this one guy for a “partnership” discussion, and two months later he shuts down his old idea and is copying mine 1-to-1. I guess it’s the matter of recognizing when not to share.

  10. Great post. I suspect 1-2-3 are the ammunition to last through the maze? After all, if we did not need to go through the journey, VCs would go out of business. But given that the path is not entirely known, VCs can actually be significantly helpful by aiding with theories and history lessons + past experience.

  11. Seeing that someone understands the maze as best he/she can is a good test of curiousity/commitment/seriousness, but agree it will always tend to change over time.

  12. It’s hard to argue that Dropbox was just right place and right time when SO many other startups were trying what they were. I think part of it was insight into just how hard a technical problem it was to do cloud storage/sync right and then having super strong tech team who could do it.

  13. Of course none of this operates in the real world.

    From what I can see at some point way after the “innovators” have presented their offerings, a set of more robust copycats enter the market. Each of these has a slightly better mousetrap, or a way of making money off it more consistently. Often there is little difference between them or the founding companies.

    Take Facebook. It was a late comer to a market full of MySpace type networks that had been around in one form or another since the web started, and really as far back as the 1980s when Usenet was introduced. To cite another example, Ray Kroc did not invent the slider!

    However, there was that perfect storm of market, timing and money that boosted its fortunes. Did they have any unique “ideas” at all? Far from it…but like The Beatles, they lifted, cut and paste from a lot of founding fathers….a synthetic rather than organic art form.

    When it comes to significant startup businesses, Newton’s quip about Standing on the Shoulders of Giants seems more applicable than the Great Idea.

  14. Alex Martin says:

    Chris, I disagree regarding stealth mode until the product is developed to the point to attack the market.

    If there is existing competition & your idea is a positive improvement to where competition has failed, it is beneficial to stay stealth, otherwise you give away your secret sauce to the existing competition, who is in a better spot to reach the market.

    Wouldn’t existing competition just pivot & incorporate your new ideas?

  15. Guest says:

    What further advice might you have for those creating novel ideas? Where there is no solid history to follow?

    My team & I have created web technology that plays audio in sync across multiple devices (demo of 50 ppl/devices blasting audio in sync https://vimeo.com/71647538); crowd-source audio for events, flash mobs, etc or blast music thru out your home on multiple devices.

    We have ideas of what markets to hit like recreational businesses, home audio and or the Pandora/Spotifys of the world, but it’s a new domain.

    Any good examples of novel ideas that hit it big for us to study?

  16. What further advice might you have for those creating novel ideas? Where there is no solid history to follow?

    My team & I just released web technology that plays audio in sync across multiple devices (demo of 50 ppl/devices blasting audio in sync http://vimeo.com/71647538 ); crowd-source audio for events, flash mobs, etc or blast music thru out your home on multiple devices.

    We have ideas of what markets to hit like recreational businesses, home audio and or the Pandora/Spotifys of the world, but it’s a new domain.

    Anyone know good examples of novel ideas that hit it big for us to study?

  17. For me”The Idea Maze” is the difference between a Jeff Bezos working out moves for the long-term and a Jeff Busyoz that looks for a cookie-cutter solution to the maze. The notion that people can take ideas and run with them was expounded to the hilt by Napoleon Hill in “Think and Grow Rich”. Hill’s warning is how ideas are taken by others and how others find the treasure – but his book also points out that there are also special characteristics of the entrepreneur – that merely taking an idea isn’t even the beginning to the how and why of leading to treasure.

    Balaji makes this clear when he says “Anyone can point out the entrance to the maze, but few can think through all the branches.”. What I like about what he has written is that there is no easy short-cut, that risk is abundant but there are ways of seeing and making the invisible visible so while the entrepreneur is busy creating new pathways they also take advantage of the lessons of history, and we all know just how much history repeat itself. In a startup world where there is significant mortalty rates for startups, a smart entrepreneur ignores this wisdom to their peril.

    The idea of a visual idea maze should also appeal to founders, for the reason we call the best of them visionaries is because they do utilize this sense mechanism, and that is also why some founders hand off their nurtured and hard won fledglings to business managers – execution comes into its own when a business is out of its infancy and into full flooded maturity. Even then insight is the chief failure that leaves great companies groping.

    Ultimately I believe that there is an equanimity in great founders that Balaji underscores – this equanimity prevents hubris or the extremes of exalting and derision that is common with people living life one chapter ahead of the next person – whereas Balaji underscores for me that the entrepreneur of note isn’t playing pure blind chance of being followers – but living the competitive advantage of utilizing the relationship between ideas and execution to leave others to following best practices – and entrepreneur who can see all the branches isn’t surviving in best practices, but thriving to create – leaving them as the source of future best practice.

    The problem with best practice is assuming someone has done the thinking, what I see Balaji saying here isn’t following best practices but understanding the industry, which is not best practices but adaptation – the entrepreneur uses the big picture as adaptive practice. I can see why people get excited when they are presented with excellent thinking – but I think great entrepreneurs have an equal resolve of equanimity as they do adaptive thinking that way more than following a best practice.

    [Em]

  18. Yes, there was a lot of engineering details that went into making it work seamlessly at the PC level. They were pushing the limits of integrations inside OS’s file systems. Drew was obsessed with that initially.

  19. dkural says:

    The two are compatible. Why not do both. The histories will give a rich picture to dissect and formulate first principles out of. In practice Elon learns from the past / history as well. For instance, Tesla cares about & spends money on enabling a ‘service network’, because it understands the importance of servicing a car for the buyer. This is a lesson the whole industry learned before that he benefits from.

  20. It’s not a binary choice.

    You can get all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks of stealth mode by simply not talking about those one or two things that you think are key to the avenue you’re taking down the maze.

  21. It happens, but from what I’ve seen/heard, it is extremely rare. Most people aren’t going to drop everything to start a company. And most people will either think your idea is bad or have a different approach to it. But that is always a risk.

  22. I think it depends what you mean by stealth. The extreme case is not telling anyone outside of your team/investors. Normally you can talk to lots of helpful people without tipping of the handful of competitors you are most worried about.

  23. Actually Facebook had lots of original ideas, including building the network at colleges. It’s only in retrospect and from the outside that the strategy looks the same as the competitors.

  24. Do many investors actually question an entrepreneur / founder to ask what if questions to see how their idea maze flows, to see if they’ve actually thought forward into theoretical situations?

  25. I think it depends on how much of an opening there is in a market and/or how good you are at explaining an idea and inspiring someone of its future value.

    I imagine it happens more than is mentioned, especially with the mantra that is popular of “ideas aren’t valuable.”

  26. You could only really know of how a person is functioning if you have longer discussion with them. The idea that you should have a very specific elevator pitch to some degree can already set the angle – and it seems you don’t want to be too specific, nor too broad – though broader allows discussion to go in more directions.

  27. There are examples of ideas and businesses that find traction by finding alignment with a new/changed market despite multiple attempts in the past to build something very similar – i.e. Palm came in the wake of a long string of handheld/pen computing/tablet failures like Apple’s Newton and GO’s PenPoint. To expertly pilot the idea maze, I’d therefore suggest that one must not only know the history of what’s been tried before but also how the market, ecosystem, and customers have changed since those ideas where tried. IMHO this speaks directly to the tactical value of smart iteration (ie informed by history) in one’s search for market fit.

  28. Alex Martin says:

    Ok, got it, I just am in the stages of product development & certainly worry about publishing a website or anything with the whole business concept for the whole world to see, especially those competitors. Will certainly be “stealthy”.

  29. I think they sometimes do. They’ll say he/she “knows the space” after talking to them. Or they look for proxies like relevant industry experience.

  30. Fred Krueger says:

    Great Post. I especially like the comment that “Ideas do Matter / Its not all just Execution”. That, and the statement that “It takes much less money nowadays to build a successful startup” seem to be two of the most erroneous common beliefs of the new SV ecosystem.

  31. This is great thinking and advice as usual…but personally I would put one more starting point on the list, and that’s to really take the time to define the ‘why’ behind what you are thinking about doing.

    Why are you really going after this specific idea?

    If it’s just because “there is a lot of money to be made”, know that you are *probably* not going to have the passion to stick to it through to the payday.

    But, if you put the honest time in on that question, I think you’ll come out with a lot of clear understanding about what can/will drive you to success (your true passion)…and that can help you better navigate through many of the rest of this ‘starting’ list as well as all the uphill struggles you’ll encounter along the way…

    …at least that’s the current theory I’m testing ;-)

  32. I think you need to differentiate based on the scale of the idea as well. Mostly people understand that execution is what matters. Yes, execution is a set of ideas. but the bigger point is to get the domain right.

    One of our experiments on ideas – A Hacker News for Ideas, at http://firespotting.com, has taught us that folks in general are more open to sharing and discussing quality ideas. Which is an indication, in a small way, that the premium on ideas is going down.

  33. Thomas Pun says:

    I’m so glad to hear your thoughts on “ideas don’t matter”. I truly believe vision (end goal of an idea) is what motivates and holds the team together while they are going thru this idea maze.

  34. Bobby CE Ong says:

    Brilliant use of game theory concepts in explaining how your competitors will respond to you

  35. adamberk says:

    I like to call it startup frogger. Sometimes you have to move back, or sideways, or spin on a log for a while, to avoid getting squashed by a truck:)

  36. abhic says:

    Thanks for helping visualize what most of us are going through – the idea maze.

    I wish more founders would recognize that
    - you are never alone in the maze
    - if you are alone, that’s not necessarily a good thing
    - different mazes have more in common that most people believe
    - you need to follow your vision’s north star to find your unique pathway
    - you need a team, of partners & users, to give you feedback to ace the maze or risk falling down the proverbial rabbit hole.

  37. abhic says:

    That’s an interesting outcome. I have heard of that only when the other team was previously scoping your niche out already, for independent reasons.

    I wonder if you could share how did you deal with it and how things turned out for both of you?

  38. abhic says:

    Curious – do you differentiate between domain knowledge and domain experience?

    There are numerous examples of large consumer companies being started by folks who didn’t have ‘experience’ right off the bat. They had unparalleled knowledge though cause
    - they loved what they were building or/and
    - they hated what was out there already

  39. The idea phase is important and you gave great examples to map out an idea maze.

    But, while execution isn’t everything, some people get so wrapped up in the idea phase that execution doesn’t happen or happens too late.

  40. The imagery of a maze is something I hadn’t considered. I especially want to relate this to an entrepreneur several months into the product with dozens of dead ends already hit.

    No one makes it to the end perfectly; its a lot of backtracking to find the better path.

  41. abhic says:

    Can see the point of that investment thesis.

    Smartass founders can make up for their lack of experience all the time, imho.

  42. I would say that History, Analogy and Theories are 1%, first hand experience is 99%. First day of work at your startup is more than years of reading about startups.

  43. James McBennett says:

    The fight between first principles and history is not a new battle. The evidence shows that both systems work, but at different times.

    My training is in design. One can look at the 1930′s where the Bauhaus famously ignored history believing there was a new economy of industrial production and new materials to be used in design. A history of craftsmanship would not help, but steer a student in the wrong direction by using the limations of wood when working in the unexplored territority of metal furniture. In the 1950′s Scandinavia, they decided to revive wood as simply they had too much wood, also reviving an interest in history.

    Quite simply, there is not one answer. Elon Musk refers to Disruptive Entrepreneurship which if truly disruptive, the history will likely be a distraction. But most entrepreneurship is not disruptive and that is not a bad thing.

  44. Ryan Smith says:

    There are a pair of European philosophers named Deleuze and Guattari, whose body of work is applicable to this discussion. Two books in particular come to mind if anyone is interested: “A Thousand Plateaus” and “What is Philosophy?”. A Thousand Plateaus has been the most influential non-business book that I have ever read and guides a lot of how I think about any endeavor in life. They argue that there are many “territories” created by different forces in our life that try to define and categorize events/ideas. For example, the state, religion, philosophy, capitalism, etc can all try and claim an idea and assign a particular value to it (define it in a certain way). Deleuze and Guattari’s argument, however, is that if we try and deterritorialize an idea and explore the relationships between all those territorializing forces and how they affect the idea then we can maintain the creative potential of the idea and allow it to evolve throughout time. This is very similar to your description of Balaji’s notion of the idea matrix and how ideas are entangled within a complex series of historical, sociological, philosophical and psychological constructs. This makes the learning process extremely important for entrepreneurs.

    So how does this apply to startup theory surrounding ideas? First, Deleuze and Guattari believe heavily in the experimentation of life. Similarly, startups should have a culture of experimentation that they apply to their ideas and business processes, validating their learning and evolving their idea to open up the most potential for creative energy (in startups, this means growth). Second, the idea vs. execution binary, as well producers vs. non-producers, which stems from this binary is flawed. Startups should recognize that there are going to be a lot of forces that affect their idea. These forces include pressures to come up with a good idea, pressures to execute correctly, financial considerations, competitors, customer feedback, product development, marketing, historical trends, industry standards, etc. Successful founders are ones that can harness the positive pressures from each of these forces and evolve the idea throughout the startup process to achieve growth. Each of these forces can be positive catalysts for change/growth or debilitating forces. This means that a startup is a daily battle to manage this creative process and the development of an idea. I think this plays really well with your idea matrix discussion above. Lastly, Deleuze and Guattari say that the creative energy that is the relationship between territorializing forces and that allows one to navigate between all these pressures is desire. I think this is extremely important for entrepreneurs because having a sense of passion for the whole wonderful mess that is a startup is critical to having the energy and attitude to handle how your idea is going to evolve over time and how you need to keep executing-learning-and re-executing over and over.

  45. Some mazes have no exits !

    The mousetrap is fully disrupted –

    A better mousetrap – essentially uninteresting
    A cheaper mousetrap – essentially unattractive
    A faster mousetrap – not essential

    More fully disrupted – the dodo-trap – the Dodo already exited.

    Sometimes people should find a different maze !

  46. Josh Miller recently suggested that entrepreneurs should be “thesis-driven and implementation-agnostic,” and that “Founders should be married to a thesis about the world — not a specific product concept.” (https://medium.com/musings-about-text-boxes/84a80c62dbaa )

    The pop culture view, and the entrepreneurs who follow it, assume that idea = implementation (product concept). The path to success is to assume that idea = thesis, and to have that thesis be well-informed.

  47. William Orde says:

    Really interesting blog, and even better it prompted me to read the lecture post on the idea maze which nicely unified the themes of ‘it’s the idea’, ‘it’s the execution’ & ‘it’s the market’

  48. Yeah, I figure that the practice and exercise of thinking into problems deeply will help you far more than someone who’s just copying – though still frustrating, and hurtful depending on the circumstances.

  49. Well I guess it depends how you define first hand experience. Certainly we learn more efficiently when we combine our direct experience with what other people have learned.

  50. Unthink.me says:

    I feel exactly the pain, I’m the cofounder of an audition and promotion platform for freelancers and job searchers, OppenUp. Our initial year took us through different models, UX and even funding efforts. It went from an complex crowded opportunity marketplace to a simple focus service platform promoting job opportunities through video.

  51. Right after reading this blog post, I ended up reading some notes from Woody Allen, including this quote: “You can only do so much, and then you’re at the mercy of fortune.”

    Sometimes I wonder: while there are many frameworks, methods, ideas, etc. to help your startup succeed, is there still an element of fortune to the equation? Or can you completely remove this risk?

    Would love to hear what people think.

  52. Great post! I wonder how it corresponds with a business model concept and a business model canvas as Steve Blank and Eric Ries advocate. In my opinion an entrepreneur needs both:
    - BMC of the next important iteration of the company
    - roadmap and idea maze behind that.

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