How To Decide What To Build

People often tell me they want to start a startup, but they don’t know what to build. “I’m not a person with ideas”, they’ll say. Stop that narrative. You are whatever you tell yourself you are. To quote Steve Jobs: “everything in the world was created by people no smarter than you”. You can do whatever you want, once you realize one secret: everything big starts small.

Travis Kalanick started Uber as a hack to split a few private cars with his friends. Thefacebook.com was just a student directory written in PHP. Even Elon Musk started SpaceX with the goal of merely increasing NASA’s budget by pulling a PR stunt.

If you want to make something grand, don’t start with grand ambitions. Start small. Pick a project, not a company. How should you pick your project? One strategy is to think of annoyances you have in your life. These should feel almost like a stand-up comedy routine. “Don’t you hate it when you’re trying to find a file online… and you just can’t?”, or “Doesn’t it suck that mobile data costs so much?”. Etc etc. Start writing them down. I’ve been writing down ideas for as long as I can remember. And the more I do it, the more I have.

Focus on the repeat offenders. The ideas that you keep coming back to. When I think of a new idea, I get deeply infected with it. It takes over my mind. It’s all I can think about. Over time, most of the ideas fade. But a choice few keep on coming back. Pay attention to those. You know you’ve got something good when you’re thinking about it in the shower.

Tell your friends what you’re doing. This accomplishes two goals. First, you’ll refine your idea. Conversation is a very powerful way of sharpening your own thoughts. Second, you’ll find yourself more motivated to finish your project. Another common refrain I hear is “I’m not good at self-motivating myself”. All this means is that you just don’t see the benefit of doing a certain thing. You can hack that feedback loop by committing to others (especially people you respect), who you won’t want to let down.

Make sure you enjoy thinking about it. Your primary edge as a founder will be the number of hours you spent thinking about a specific problem. Over time, you should accumulate more hours than almost anyone on earth. This will only work if it doesn’t feel like a chore. If you genuinely are fascinated by the problem.

Get in the habit of simplifying. When you think about something a lot, you often add complexity to it. That’s fine! As you transition into reality, you need to develop the habit of labeling the complex idea as “something fun you might do in the future”. Instead should substitute with the simplest possible thing you could build first. Do you really need that UI? Could you just use a spreadsheet? Could you just use a static page for that? Etc. Your mind should develop two different thought patterns: “scheming mode”, where you think of the concepts in the abstract, and Razor mode”, where you focus on the simplest way to get the project out the door.

Validate your market. Often I see people dive headstrong into really, really hard markets. Without doing research. Every other month I meet someone starting a food delivery app. Or a local events app. It’s really hard to get distribution or make money doing those things. Do yourself a favor: spend a lot of time talking to customers. Even before you’ve built anything. Understand what people will pay for. How much they’ll pay. If enterprise, who in the organization will pay. How much of that could be profit. Etc etc. (I know — talking to people can be draining! It’d be great if you could just conjure success from your Terminal. But you need to gather information to make sure you build the right thing.)

Launch uncomfortably quickly. The right moment to get users is when it feels too early to get users. Talking to customers is psychologically challenging: they might not like it! But working on something without feedback is like evolving an organism in a vacuum. It will die when it goes out into the world. Your product will only thrive if other people like it. Expose yourself early to their opinions.

If there’s anything you remember from the post, let it be these two words: perpetual motion. Just Do It. Make little steps every day. One day that’ll add up to the next Google, Apple or Facebook. I’m happy to help if I can: d@dcgross.com.

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