Framework for Startup Ideas

Paul Graham had a fantastic recent post on ambitious startup ideas that is well worth reading. My biggest takeaway from that post is his framework for thinking of big ideas that have massive impact:

“One of my tricks for generating startup ideas is to imagine the ways in which we’ll seem backward to future generations. And I’m pretty sure that to people 50 or 100 years in the future, it will seem barbaric that people in our era waited till they had symptoms to be diagnosed with conditions like heart disease and cancer.”

This framework for ideas is brilliant. This is the type of long-term thinking that makes great companies. At Cloudfab, Nick (the founder) believed that in 10 years, getting things made would not require calling 15 local manufacturers, receiving quotes, and then making a decision. Our vision for Cloudfab was a distributed manufacturing system that would fundamentally change the way people manufacture things. We were starting with 3d printing because of its benefits (rapidly growing market, standard file specs, similar quality end-product no matter where it’s made), but the goal was to eventually change how things were manufactured. Generations from now, people will not be searching for manufacturers around them. Whether or not the future includes a distributed manufacturing operation remains to be seen, but you can bet that manufacturing will be far different in 5-10 years than it is today. Though Cloudfab may have had the wrong approach, there are other companies (Protomold being one of them) that are working towards the future of manufacturing in different ways. I also applied this type of thinking with RoommateFit – will universities still be matching incoming students at random in 5-10 years? Probably not.

This framework also fits with a brilliant comment left on a recent Ribbonfarm post (talking about technology cycles that boost certain segments of the economy while leaving others untouched):

“Early on we get rapidly improving computers and IT infrastructure. This stuff is nice to have but has a relatively small impact on the overall economy. We would probably call this the cheap trick… The cheap trick provides some nice bonus stuff for everyone to play with and boosts gdp by a couple points but is only disruptive to a small portion of the economy.

We then enter the middle portion of the cycle…digital technology eats increasing portions of the industrial economy, accelerating as it goes. Eventually we reach a point (basically today +/- a few years) wherein the cycle has gained too much momentum to be slowed. It has already eaten major chunks of the economy, leaving unemployment, bankruptcy and the like in its wake, but the disrupted portion of the population still faces significant expenses from the yet-to-be-disrupted portions of the economy. In our case that would include healthcare, education, defense and major portions of the energy industry…industries that have paradoxically gotten more expensive even in absolute terms.

The big lift (in economic terms) consists of the push to bring these holdout industries in line with the leading industries. In the mean time we get bizarre inconsistencies like people who can access vast repositories of medical information for free but who can’t afford branded antibiotics, or people who pay $0 for the majority of their (mostly digital) entertainment and leisure but who could easily spend $50+ just for a cab ride to go out on the town for a night.”

Combining these two frameworks creates all kinds of ideas for new startups. It allows you to think about what industries are yet to be disrupted, as well as major changes that will likely happen within the next 50 (ex: switch from email to something else). In a future post I’ll outline several ideas I have about industries to be disrupted, as well as various startup ideas I have.

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