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Friday, April 15, 2005

Paul Graham On Smart People And Bad Ideas

Paul Graham writes about his experience of Startups & Winning Ideas Excerpts with edits:

Paul narrates his experience with starting his first startup that he setup several years back. From Google and Yahoo, it is well known, that grad students can start successful startups. The accepted age for startup founders has been creeping downward. We're trying to find the lower bound.After a false start, it dawned on us that instead of trying to make web sites for people who didn't want them, we could make sites for people who did. In fact, software that would let people who wanted sites to make their own. So started a new company, Viaweb, to make software for building online stores. That one succeeded. Paul points out that microsoft was not the first company Paul Allen and Bill Gates started either. The first was called Traf-o-data.

If you're going to spend years working on something, you'd think it might be wise to spend at least a couple days considering different ideas, instead of going with the first that comes into your head. Part of the problem is that big projects tend to grow out of small ones. So the biggest cause of bad ideas is the still life effect: you come up with a random idea, plunge into it, and then at each point (a day, a week, a month) feel you've put so much time into it that this must be the idea. Unpleasant work pays.Sum up all these sources of error, and it's no wonder we had such a bad idea for a company. We did the first thing we thought of; we were ambivalent about being in business at all; and we deliberately chose an impoverished market to avoid competition.

The essence of a startup: having brilliant people do work that's beneath them. Big companies try to hire the right person for the job. Startups win because they don't- because they take people so smart that they would in a big company be doing "research," and set them to work instead on problems of the most immediate and mundane sort. Think Einstein designing refrigerators. Most smart people don't do that very well. But adding this ability to raw brainpower is like adding tin to copper. The result is bronze, which is so much harder that it seems a different metal.A hacker who has learned what to make, and not just how to make, is extraordinarily powerful. And not just at making money: look what a small group of volunteers has achieved with Firefox. A good writeup on coalescing ideas around startups.

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