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March 2007
April 2007

2007-03-12 »

The best ideas are non-obvious

    Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.
    -- Howard Aiken, via Y Combinator News

I first heard the above quote when I was taking an Entrepreneurship class (GEN E 452, if you must know) in university. It's absolutely true. I'm the sort of guy who has lots of ideas, some good and some bad, and universally, the best ideas turn out to be the ones I had to "ram down people's throats." (Politely whenever possible, of course.) But the weird ideas I have that people like instantly are the ones that make me the most nervous: if it's such a good idea, and so easy to understand, why aren't we already doing it that way? There's probably an excellent reason, if you look for it.

And that ties in to a problem the world is having right now with what I call "stupid entrepreneurship." It's not to say that entrepreneurship is stupid, it's just that most entrepreneurs are just starting stupid companies because they really don't know any better, and worse, they're worried that someone will steal their idea, so they don't tell anyone about it - and telling people about your idea is the best way to find out your idea is stupid, if you're willing to pay attention.

Now, I'm a little bit secretive about what my new company is doing, mostly for potential patent-related reasons. But I've talked to various people individually about it, and given some good clues, even if I haven't exactly been posting the source code in my journal. And I've gotten good feedback, and updated my idea, and I know for sure that it's not obvious, and I also know that people can understand it if I learn to explain it well enough. That's the interesting challenge when you've got a new idea: it has to be non-obvious and yet explainable so that people can, in fact, understand.

But non-obvious doesn't make it good

I've been following some entrepreneurship-related forums lately, and they've been depressing me, because even the least depressing conversations go like this: "I have this idea, but everyone thinks it's dumb. Is it?" "Don't listen to everyone else. The best ideas aren't obvious and you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

This is faulty logic. Just because you have to ram it down people's throats doesn't mean it's good! More often than not, it means it's a terrible idea! Please, dear God, do listen to everyone else! And if you really listen, and your idea really hasn't been blown apart, then maybe it's a good idea. Stubbornness is a virtue - sometimes.

Pithy advice

I realize people will have some trouble applying the above general advice, so let me be extra clear.

The world doesn't need another video or photo sharing site, especially a thematically-restricted one. Or another way to meet people. Or another way to do online advertising. Or another search engine, particularly one with geographic/local/regional/topical focus. Or more metadata. Or a search engine for metadata. Or another collaborative encyclodictionary. Or another operating system. Or another music player applet. Or another programming language. Or another web-based calendar application. Or another RSS aggregator. Or another shopping cart application. Or another tool for building web sites.

It's not that any of those ideas are bad. In fact, they're great ideas. Everybody knows they want one of each of those things. You know, one of them. And there's already more than one, including the best one. Trust me, you're not the person who's going to make the best one, because it's already been made, and it's good enough, and the people who made them are all really smart and have more money than you. There are all sorts of things I want that nobody makes right now, because I don't even know I want them and even if you know, you're not making them either. Please, please, please, just make me some of those.

I'm CEO at Tailscale, where we make network problems disappear.

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