July 18, 2017 | Neeraj Goel
If you want to be your own boss, and you have skills and fortitude to do so — but not an idea for a startup— what do you do? Having spent at least 36 months of my life searching for ideas, and starting two companies, I’ll share four things I learned about how to do so successfully:
Don’t read the tech blogs (well, other than this one). You can drive yourself crazy focusing on the hype of what’s going on today. Moreover, you will get stuck in a loop of derivative thinking (Uber for cats. No … the Airbnb for cats!). You need to be informed by new businesses that are starting and having an impact on the market. But I suggest that you largely inform yourself about who they are and what they do, and form your own, independent view of what is interesting, disruptive and likely to succeed in the long term. Get conviction around who you think are the non-obvious winners, and be inspired by them.
Eat lots of lunch. While the food, in and of itself, won’t help you succeed, I would encourage you to try to never eat lunch by yourself. Enormous creativity can be found by surrounding yourself with thoughtful, intellectually curious folks, and talking with them in an unstructured way. Talk about which businesses they think, or you think, will be non-obvious winners, and why those businesses will be particularly disruptive or powerful.
Become a truffle hog. Once again, eating is not going to solve this problem for you. Sniffing, however, might. Just as a truffle hog can sniff out a truffle up to three feet underground, your senses should come alive when you find someone hiding a good idea. Lots of folks in the startup ecosystem are hunting for gold, and some have found a vein. They may not want to share it with you, but if you are persistent, helpful or nice enough … they might. The goal is not to steal their business idea, but to glean a non-obvious insight that is generalizable to other businesses.
Experiment. Try things. It’s surprising what you can learn by doing, and often there are things you fail to appreciate if you just dissect something from the outside. If you want to start a consumer app, go learn to code and write one. If you think drones are the future, go buy a drone. Better yet, go build a drone.
These were the tools that worked for me. My process was unstructured, and deliberately so. I have seen other techniques employed — more structured analysis, market sizing, diagramming and dissecting — but for me, these dampen the element of creativity.