As a founding partner at Y Combinator, Paul Graham has seen countless startup pitches. In a new essay, called “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas,” Graham makes the case that the ideas with the most disruptive potential also happen to be frightening due to the sheer ambition they would require from entrepreneurs to turn them into reality.
Yes, there is an amazing amount of talent in Silicon Valley; there has been for years, and there will be for many more to come. But, while the tech industry continues to produce world-changing hardware, software, and consumer web companies, there is a sense that the current landscape is lacking the kind of deep innovation that once defined the industry. Last September, at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, Max Levchin and Peter Thiel went so far as to say that innovation today is actually “between dire straits and dead.”
In his essay, Graham attributes this to the fact that “the best ideas are just on the right side of impossible.” And being so close to impossible, they are naturally both frightening and repelling — even if those ideas inherently represent billion-dollar businesses.
In the everyday work of journalists, investors, entrepreneurs and advisors, good ideas seem obvious and attractive. They immediately get us thinking, tweeting, writing, or thumbing through our check books. But, in truth, the great businesses aren’t really appealing at all. They suck.
Case in point: Building a new search engine. As Graham says:
That does not by itself mean there’s room for a new search engine, but lately when using Google search I’ve found myself nostalgic for the old days, when Google was true to its own slightly aspy self. Google used to give me a page of the right answers, fast, with no clutter. Now the results seem inspired by the Scientologist principle that what’s true is what’s true for you. And the pages don’t have the clean, sparse feel they used to. Google search results used to look like the output of a Unix utility. Now if I accidentally put the cursor in the wrong place, anything might happen.
Like how Microsoft confused itself worrying too much about Google and getting into the search game itself (Bing), Google has arguably become obsessed with Facebook’s growing share of the Web. Google+ is its answer to Facebook, and when it started incorporating social initiatives into search (with the so-called “Search Plus Your World”), a lot of people balked, saying, essentially, “Uh, yeah, that’s not ‘my world’ at all.”
Some might say Google is betting the farm on Google+, while in the meantime, we are left looking for alternatives to what used to be an awesome search engine. Blekko, for one, is trying. Graham suggests, in a way that sounds almost Jobs-ian, that hackers should build a new search engine, one that they and other hackers want to use — not for us, but for themselves. If that plucky entrepreneur could get the best 10K coders in the country using it, they’d be 10 percent of the way to an IPO, he says.
Graham’s next suggestion is one that many power users can relate: For the love of God, someone fix email. (My words, not his. Also, see MG’s on this subject.) He floats the idea of a totally new “todo” protocol, that would give the recipient more power than the current one allows. Obviously, this is no easy feat, as he references that this age-old paradox that The Dark Knight seemingly made famous, in so doing:
This is one of those ideas that’s like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. On one hand, entrenched protocols are impossible to replace. On the other, it seems unlikely that people in 100 years will still be living in the same email hell we do now. And if email is going to get replaced eventually, why not now?
If you do it right, you may be able to avoid the usual chicken and egg problem new protocols face, because some of the most powerful people in the world will be among the first to switch to it. They’re all at the mercy of email too.
Whatever you build, make it fast. GMail has become painfully slow. If you made something no better than GMail, but fast, that alone would let you start to pull users away from GMail.
The Y Combinator partner also touches on a big new trend in education tech — the flipping of the classroom, asking entrepreneurs to tackle the problem of universities — something Peter Thiel has been talking about for awhile now, and is attempting to address with his Thiel Fellowship.
There is a huge opportunity in making higher — or at least secondary — education remote. But the challenge is making that remote, digital experience high-quality, equivalent or better to that of an on-campus education.
He also touches on the need for new and better web TV, as well as the importance of finding a new Steve Jobs:
Now Steve is gone there’s a vacuum we can all feel. If a new company led boldly into the future of hardware, users would follow. The CEO of that company, the “next Steve Jobs,” might not measure up to Steve Jobs. But he wouldn’t have to. He’d just have to do a better job than Samsung and HP and Nokia, and that seems pretty doable.
Lastly, he says that we could all benefit from bringing back Moore’s Law, although with pieces of news like this, it seems there may be hope.
Although Paul may not have said it explicitly, let this be a challenge to startups and entrepreneurs. There are some big ideas here — enough to keep us all occupied for the next 20 years.
I think the way to use these big ideas is not to try to identify a precise point in the future and then ask yourself how to get from here to there, like the popular image of a visionary. You’ll be better off if you operate like Columbus and just head in a general westerly direction. Don’t try to construct the future like a building, because your current blueprint is almost certainly mistaken. Start with something you know works, and when you expand, expand westward.
I’ll leave off there, so that you can go read it yourself.