Back in November of last year, Paul Graham, he of Y Combinator fame, wrote a fascinating blog post on coming up with startup ideas. There has been an immense amount of material generated in the tech blogosphere on this subject, but his essay is probably the best I’ve seen. Like most of his posts it’s on the long side, but if this is a topic that interests you, I highly recommend taking 15 minutes to read the whole thing (I recognize that’s a lot to ask these days!).
It took me until last week to find 15 uninterrupted minutes to read it myself, but it got me thinking about my own journey to find the idea for my current startup. Towards the end of 2011 I launched into this process full-time. This wasn’t exactly my first rodeo and I thought I had a decent sense of how to go about it. I knew this was a creative process, and therefore it would be hard to put too much structure around it. However, for the first time I was giving myself the luxury of focusing on it 100% as opposed to relegating it to part-time status, so I figured a conservative timeline would be 6 months to land on the final idea. Feel free to start laughing at this point.
Fast-forward to the present and I can say my “idea search” was ultimately successful. I have my vision, I know now that I’m extremely passionate about solving problems in personal finance and making it dead simple to get yourself on the right path financially. Yet nothing went as planned and it took more than a year to get here.
Where did I go wrong? Well, let me give you a (brief) overview of the year.
During much of 2012 I worked with two of my close friends, both of whom were also itching to start something. Over the course of the year we looked at a ton of ideas. We started with areas we were supposedly passionate about – music, movies, education. We found lots of problems but couldn’t necessarily come up with good ways to solve them. We ended up spending several months looking at video games, particularly mobile games. Was there a way to apply the Moneyball model of data analysis to funding and distributing mobile games (the way Relativity Media has done with movies)? We got pretty close on some ideas there, but ended up backing away because at the end of the day, we weren’t gamers, and you can’t fake it in that world! Ultimately, the three of us parted ways towards the end of the summer. It was the right call and we are all still great friends, but we realized that it just wasn’t working.
Unfortunately, this left me back at square one, and not in the happiest of places. Months of hard work, and little or nothing to show for it, other than a long list of things I didn’t want to do. Fortunately, it only took a few weeks for the fog to begin to clear.
We had actually done a month of work on an earlier version of a concept for The Startup back in the spring, but at the time the other two guys weren’t as jazzed about personal finance as a space, and I was happy to focus on other things if that got us closer to founding something. However, as I went back through that work seeking clarity on my next move, I started seeing it in a new light. Over the previous six months I had also been going through the steps of trying to find my parents and myself a new set of financial advisors, and though I knew exactly what I was looking for (it only took me 12 years of working in various aspects of finance and investing to finally figure that out!), it was an incredibly difficult and time-consuming process. All of a sudden the pieces magically started to fall into place as I envisioned an online resource that could cut my six-month search down to a few minutes by giving me the information I wanted to know in a no-BS fashion, and then connecting me to the product, service or advisor I needed right then and there. That was the start and I was off to the races.
So, given how this search process played out, maybe a more relevant question isn’t, “What went wrong for most of the year?”, but instead, “What went right at the end?”
In retrospect, most of the answers can be found in Paul’s post:
- I ended up focusing on a problem I have. I can personally relate to the pain and frustration of having to deal with things like awful financial advisors, getting life insurance, sorting through taxes, etc. etc. (anyone think their bank is doing a great job for them right now?). I hate it. I hate dealing with these big financial services companies almost as much as I hate dealing with Comcast or Verizon Wireless. But I also know having my financial ducks in a row is important, and I am supremely confident there’s a better way to do it. More on this in another post.
- I know this industry. I’ve spent most of my career in financial services in one way or another. Paul talks about being at the leading edge of a field, preferably one that is changing quickly, because it allows you to “live in the future and build what seems interesting”. Financial services isn’t changing all that quickly yet, and there are a lot of powerful interests that would like to keep the status quo as it is. However, my generation and the ones that follow – people who grew up with the Internet – will not tolerate opaqueness and hidden fees and awful customer service. Providing a great customer experience will win the day, things are starting to change around the edges, and I think I can see where the holes are.
- It turns out I’m really passionate about this stuff. I think some people are almost born knowing what they are passionate about (e.g. my brother has been a die-hard marine conservationist since his first trip to Sea World when he was ~3, and he is now the Walker Conservation Fellow at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta doing fascinating work on making coral reef conservation and restoration self-sustainable; check out some of his work here), but for others of us it’s more of a process of self-discovery. With a lot of the industries we looked at this year, I couldn’t really get psyched up to solve the challenges that were immediately apparent. I could see myself at some point not wanting to get out of bed in the morning to face the next obstacle. In Paul-speak, I couldn’t turn off the “schlep filter”. But in my current area of focus, that isn’t the case. I know exactly how hard it’s going to be, and I can’t wait to dive in head first. That sense of excitement, probably more than anything else, has made it clear to me that I am finally on the right track.
It’s seems a little bit funny that it took so much effort to just get to the starting point, and now that I’m here I can clearly see the immense amount of work it will take to make this company a reality, but one step at a time.