Research to Development for Start-up Ideas

by phil on Friday Dec 7, 2012 10:19 PM

(Photo courtesy of Matthew Blouir via Creative Commons)

In Paul Graham's essay "How to Get Startup Ideas," he suggests that you can't concoct a good start-up idea. He likens such at-will brainstorming to the way a sitcom writer would invent a fake start-up idea for a character playing the role of a techie. The sitcom writer's strategy is to simply marry two concepts--let's say, "social networks" and "pet owners"--and voila, instant sitcom-ready start-up idea.

The alternative way that Paul encourages is to instead prepare yourself for discovery. Prepare to be inspired. This is potentially unappealing, he concedes, because it implies that it could take an order of six months to a year to come up with a good start-up idea, as opposed to coming up with one in the next few days.

But there is a middle way: Research to Development. This is in distinction to Research and Development, which is often a big-budget department at a large company whose employees are instructed to just work on academic ideas in the faint hope of one day maybe gleaning a product from it. In Research to Development, you work on drafts of ideas, pulling threads and following hunches, and your second or third effort eventually materializes into something that is a marketable and complete product.

This is something Apple has done. Their "research" is always toward imaginary products that they are eager to build businesses around. Steve Jobs, for example, really believed that touch interfaces were the way forward, and yet nobody at the time believed the technology was ready for that (fingers were too fat, the responsiveness of the screens too slow, and the screen surfaces too thick.) But these assumptions all got obliterated by simply researching and developing toward Jobs' vision. I'm sure the developers themselves were surprised to discover that that they had in fact innovated their way toward a feasible touch screen, but Apple kept this a secret, thus making the first iPhone release announcement a bit of a magic show.

So the strategy for someone looking for a start-up idea is to pick a technology or market they're interested in, and explore with the intent of ultimately piecing together a product idea. If you're a tech person, that would mean experimenting with APIs and gadgets, seeing what is possible. For a non-tech person, this would mean immersing yourself in an interesting market, talking to customers and makers.

There is indeed a deliberate act involved, something Graham is trying to minimize, but it's one-degree removed from the actual creation of a start-up idea. The deliberate act is in picking a market or technology and pushing yourself to dig deeper. And then, let the concrete idea emerge on its own.


I don't have as stacked a resume as Paul Graham's, but R-to-D is how I came up with Nebulous Notes and 3D Porch. With Nebulous Notes, I saw that the Dropbox API was open for mobile developers, and since I love Dropbox and needed a new app idea, I started tinkering with it. Eventually I saw how simple it was to edit text files with the API, and so I made a quick first release, becoming one of the first Dropbox-enabled iOS apps. My initial goal was to actually make a file picker kit (similar to, but I didn't realize how much of a nerd I was going to become with just plain-text files. After two years, the app has since mushroomed into a full-fledged text editor now, and it funds a sizeable portion of my indie app developer lifestyle.

With 3D Porch, I followed a similar process. I pushed myself to go to Best Buy and familiarize myself with all the latest 3D gadgets that were around, simply because I knew there was a market there (and because I thought it was fun.) I then bought a 3D camera, and after playing with it, I immediately thought of making a 3D-version of YouTube. I started building this out, picking up Ruby on Rails in the process, and realized it was actually too hard to do 3D video. So I pivoted and came up with the idea for a 3D-version of imgur. While 3D Porch still has yet to make a huge profit, it became the number 1 3D photo-sharing site nearly overnight, was picked up by CNN, and has developed a cult following.

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