Nobody Knows Anything About Startup Ideas

In the world of entrepreneurship, ideas occupy a mystical place. Is it possible to have a unique idea? What makes a good idea? There is a common trope about how ideas don’t matter, it’s all about execution. Some people believe that great ideas look like bad ideas at first.

If we try to formalize this, a startup idea is simply a hypothesis about the following:

  1. I can build a certain thing.
  2. By the time this thing reaches the market, people will want it.
  3. The world will evolve in a direction that will favor this thing.

The first one is the easiest to prove. You either can built something or you can’t. The second one is a little harder because it’s contingent on the first having happened. Now, the third one is the really difficult one, because of Chaos Theory. Let me illustrate with an example.

It’s the year 1500, and two scientists are arguing about when humans will explore space. They make a bet. One of them believes it occur before the year 2000, the other believes it will be after. Fast forward to the 17th century, a young man named Isaac Newton is sitting under a tree, contemplating the clouds on the horizon. Suddenly an apple falls on his head, and he has a great idea regarding gravity. Excited, he gets up and starts walking home to write it down. Unfortunately he gets hit by a lightning bolt and dies. This sets physics back by several decades. In the year 2019, a human being rides a rocket outside the Earth atmosphere for the first time. “Space is no longer the final frontier,” someone tweets.

Was Webvan a great idea? Was it a better idea than AirBnb? Was WeWork a great idea? Were these ideas better than something I cannot name because it was quickly killed by metaphorical lightning?

We humans are proud creatures, and we want to believe we are good at predicting trends. The truth is that we are not. The best we can do is bet on a scenario that seems plausible to us, and then hope it unfolds. Survivor bias makes it look like prophets exist, but it is reasonable to ask ourselves: for every winner who gets to tell me their story how many of them are back at the drawing board, hoping to catch the right wave the next time?

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