Your Startup Is Uninteresting

There’s a reason I’m doing what I’m doing now (making games). The projects that I work on require truly interdisciplinary thinking on large scales. Gamers are found in pretty much every microcosm of our population and making something “fun” is very nuanced and difficult. Of equal importance is the technical challenge associated with shipping a game (especially if it’s real-time, 3d, etc).

So when people pitch their “startups” to me, I can’t help but think, “I would never work for that startup.” Here is what makes a startup uninteresting to me:

  1. There are no hard problems
    • So many startups I see on hackernews or in my linkedin mail is just another REST application.
    • Boring boring boring. At least try to make a new kind of database, or programaming language, or mode of transportation, or anything that is not something some kids could have done in high school (if they were high schoolers, I’d be more impressed of course).
  2. The people leading the project are not technically sound
    • This can be smelled miles away. “Expertise in Ruby or NoSQL preferred.”
    • If I had a dollar every time a person who wanted to use a NoSQL store actually needed a NoSQL store, I’d be a millionaire.
  3. The business aspect is not sound either
    • This relates somewhat to #1. There is nothing in the product or service proposal that strikes me as something groundbreaking.
    • Making money is secondary to solving problems to me. The first follows the second.

Every now and then, I see something more interesting, but for the most part, “entrepreneurs” have their mind in the “WHAT REST BASED WEB APP CAN I SPIN UP IN RAILS THAT HASN’T BEEN DONE BEFORE” gutter. They find their idea, and immediately incorporate themselves as a C-Corp because that’s what everybody else does (even though their little web app is unlikely to ever need more than 100 shareholders).

So then, what makes a startup more interesting?

  1. Challenging problems
    • This is easy to fake. Even an easy problem can be “challenging” if you’re restricted to doing it in 40 seconds or less.
    • If I can’t quite come up with the solution the the problem in the first 48 hours, and even then, only have an idea afterwards, it is somewhat challenging
  2. Interesting problems
    • If I can’t stop thinking about the problem, then it is an interesting problem as well.
    • This is more subjective than #1 but some thing are obviously uninteresting as well.
  3. The problems solve a demand
    • I don’t need to see weeks and weeks of market research
    • The “measure the demand first” principle that so many startups employ is all well and good, but I think it derives from how most of their “products” is a simple webapp that wouldn’t have much demand unless it was a fluke.
    • Give me a highly performant distributed database that supports multi-object transactions. Boom. Demand guaranteed. Or an extremely addictive and fun video game. Again, demand guaranteed.
  4. The problems solve a demand I have
    • Even if the first 3 points are there, if I personally am not interested in the result, then I will never be able to summon the passion required to see it through to the end

In short, startups are startups because they do things that haven’t been done before. As to the reason why it hasn’t been done before, it could be that the problem was not worth solving or that the problem was too hard to solve or that the problem has never occurred to anybody before. Startup founders need to realize that problems that fall into the last category are the rarest and subject to the most risk (they are easy to replicate). Problems that are in the last category could be interesting. Problems that meet a demand in the second category are interesting.