As a founder, you can act one of two ways. Either you can treat your idea as your precious and lock it away in a dark room until the big reveal, or you can go out there and tell everyone about it. I’m running a Clubhouse room called @edpitches weekly with a bunch of the other edtech and future of work investors. At least once a week, a founder I inform gives me a ‘no’. There are two failure cases for founders. One is ‘I’m not raising so I don’t want to talk to anyone’. That’s another post. But the most common failure I hear is ‘What I’m doing is really secret and crafty, so I don’t want to talk to a large group about it.’
There are two reasons this case bothers me. First, ideas don’t matter on their own, so someone stealing your idea and beating you at the same game is very rare. Second, by getting out there and telling everyone what you are doing, you engage a whole bunch of other people to help you either through giving you ideas, arguing with you, giving you money, becoming partners or customers. Startups die from apathy far more than anything else, so stop worrying about your idea and start making sure everyone hears about it. In my experience, four things are more important than your idea and you can work on several of them by shouting about your idea to anyone that will listen:
1 — Timing. Timing sounds obvious, but the root cause of timing problems is not. Some startups show up at exactly the time when folks want them, and others are too early. Unpacking this, my experience is that startups either perfect need fulfillment for an existing behavior (Google 10–100x better search) or build something that requires one additional new behavior (not two!). For example, AirBnB really works because of the transparency of the rating system and qualitative feedback. Folks like Amazon in books/products and Yelp in services went first on reputation systems, because products and services are lower risk stuff for the consumer. If I buy a bad product or a bad service, usually my life is OK. If I go to the wrong place to stay, I could be in serious trouble. So AirBnB’s timing had to be after we had gotten used to reputation as a way of establishing trust. This allowed them to invent a new category. For a founder, timing feels like something outside of your control, but behaviors are not. Is there one behavior to change? Is the need strong enough for early adopters to make that change? Are you stacked on top of other things leading to that change? When you shout about your idea, you unlock a bunch of people who spend a lot of time thinking about behaviors. Investors and advisors who may have pioneered the last wave will be especially tuned to whether you are onto an incipient behavior or not and will give you good feedback.
2 — People. Again, to be clear in my experience, the reason founders are so important is the hundreds of weekly decisions they are making which radically shapes the way the company goes. Great founders are great at understanding timing/behavior because they are smart and creative. Good founders can be sitting in the middle of a great opportunity, but can’t take advantage. Your idea pales in comparison to your abilities, so getting yourself out there and improving yourself and your thinking is really important.
3 — Finding the seam. Over and over, I’ve seen multiple companies go into a market with more or less the same idea, but one comes out 10x-100x more valuable. In my first company, NetGravity, we built technology for advertising and became a unicorn. But one of our competitors, DoubleClick, realized that web sites didn’t just need technology, they needed someone to sell their inventory to advertisers too. And they became a decacorn. When you find the seam, if other companies are in your space but don’t have that seam (the place of most intense need), you will win. Seams are an area that a lot of successful investors and advisors think about all day long. Often, they have 100 times as many data points about the current market as you do. They can test your thinking on whether you have found the absolute maximum or just a local maximum of need.
4 — Growing faster. The process of finding a place of high need, a place ready to change, is in itself very difficult. What’s even more difficult is putting this together with a product and growth strategy that can outpace your competition. You have to assume as a founder that there are five other companies going after both the same need and the same seam as you. Figuring out how to grow faster than them makes a 10x difference in valuation (say $100m vs. $1b company). This is something we did well at NetGravity, we beat the other 20+ companies trying to sell technology for advertising, because we got there early and built a sales and marketing engine to grow faster. We did that because we talked to a lot of people about how they had done that successfully. If you want to build the best startup, talking to as many people about how you are going to market is crucial.
I’m a product guy and a big believer in experimentation. I think founders can learn a ton by starting with first principles and testing user behaviors. The thing that experimentation cannot do is inspire new thinking. That’s what shouting about your idea opens you up to. So worry about the things above, and the best way to solve them is to tell absolutely everyone what you are doing. Shout your idea at the top of your lungs and see who your idea attracts. Maximize your learning, not your secrecy.