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Idea reach and the cofounder myth

Last week's linked post "stop looking for a cofounder" generated quite a bit of response on HN, much of it around the idea of using freelancers to build your startup. People seemed to think that I advocated using subcontractors to build high-tech startups.

The answer to this is a concept I call "idea reach", which is essential for any new entrepreneur to understand, especially if they think they need a cofounder.

The ideas within your reach

Idea reach represents the landscape of ideas that are within your reach to implement. On the multi-dimensional mental map of startup ideas, it is the ones that are close enough to your current location (determined by your knowledge, personality, experience, etc) that you can actually get there (with the execution ability you have - determined by your resources and skills) and implement them. When evaluating which ideas to work on, you should always consider this concept. One of the reasons why so many business cofounders are "looking for technical cofounders" at the wrong time is because they fail to understand idea reach.

There are many bad, good, and great ideas out there. When deciding which one to work on, it's not enough to evaluate whether the idea is viable in the abstract. Whether you personally will be able to execute on it is just as important.


Here are some simple examples.

Let's say you had the idea of using popularity to rank webpages, back in the late 90s, but you have no technical background. You don't know programming, you just know how to use a web browser and create a Geocities page, but you think that search engines could be done much better.

This is a brilliant idea, and after you explore it (using, for example, the lean methods which only evolved 10 years later, because you're a visionary), you decide that this is worth pursuing, it has a lot of market potential. And you would be right - that idea turned out to be one of the biggest ideas of the decade, spawning the extremely successful Google.

However, starting with no technical knowledge, implementing Google would not be within your reach. It's a great idea for somebody else, someone who has the technical chops to implement a highly challenging technology project like the Google search engine. It is not the kind of idea where you can just put down a few hundred thousand dollars (assuming you had them), hire a bunch of programmers, and get them to make it happen.

Another, even more obvious example: let's say you have an idea for a phone better than the iPhone. Let's assume it's a great idea, and you even have the skills in "technology" to implement it (yes, I know that it's laughable to think that a single person could do all that today). That's still not within your reach, however, because developing an iPhone-killer prototype is far from sufficient to compete with the behemoths operating in that market. You need logistics, manufacturing deals, negotiation leverage, great marketing, and so on. There's no way you will have access to that without first building a large company. This idea is obviously out of the reach of any new entrepreneur.

Here's a more subtle example: let's say you know very little about software, but you are a highly experienced project manager and you think you can design significantly better project management software. Depending on how complicated this software is technologically (and to find that out, you'll have to trust someone technical to tell you) this idea may be just within your reach (with some hired assistance), or just out of your reach.

If the tool turns out to be relatively simple (bearing in mind that not everyone is trying to build the next Google), and if, as the founder of the company, you have the funds (from whatever source) to invest in it, it is conceivable that an early version of this project management tool could be implemented by freelancers, paid employees, or a combination of the two, without you, the founder, having to be technical. So long as the idea is not too technically complex (and a lot of great business ideas aren't very complex technologically - e.g. Groupon), you can make up for your lack of skill by spending money.

If it turns out to be very complicated, the idea is simply outside of the reach of a non-technical project manager. It might (or might not) be a great idea, but it's not the right idea for this founder. Instead of looking for a technical cofounder who will make up for that huge hole in your skill set, find another idea that's better suited to you.

Finally, if the idea is not too technical, so it is possible to hire people to do it for you, for a sum anywhere from a few thousand bucks to a million, but you don't have that money available, then no matter how simple the idea may be, it is out of your reach, because you do not have the resources to execute on it. At that point, you shouldn't "go looking for a cofounder". Instead, try to raise the capital (likely from your own savings) so that the idea comes within your reach. If you can't raise the capital (because no investor believes in you, or because the idea is just too expensive), this idea is outside your reach. Do something else.

The problem with looking for cofounders

The way many people end up looking for cofounders is that they spend a lot of time thinking through a lot of ideas, and finally settle on the "best" idea that seems not too far out of their reach. Very often, however, that idea is still quite far out of their reach, usually because they lack the technical skills to implement it themselves and they vastly underestimate (or don't bother estimating at all) the complexity of the idea.

So then, having had the idea already, they go and look for a "cofounder" to make up for the fact that this not the right idea for them. Sometimes, they find that person. Sometimes that even works out ok. But generally, it doesn't work, because the people who make good cofounders are either unavailable, or uninterested in your idea, and so the chances are anyone you do convince to join you isn't worth having as a cofounder in the first place.

Extending your reach

This, however, doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with having cofounders. Cofounders provide many things, including motivation, more dynamic ideas, and even additional reach. If you know someone who is great at building physical widgets, and you're great at building software, and you're both looking to start a business at the same time, it can very well make sense to team up and look for an idea that's within the reach of both of you as a team, rather than individually. Chances are, this idea will have less competition, because fewer founding teams will have those combined skills.

"Looking for potential cofounders" is fine if your aim is to meet cool people whom you may want to work with later if the right opportunity comes along. Having great people in your network extends your reach because if you both happen to be free at the same time, you can pool your resources and execute on more difficult ideas.

But don't go looking for a cofounder to enable you to implement an idea, which you've settled on already, that's outside your reach. That's not a cofounder, it's an employee who's executing on your plan, and should be paid with money. And if you can't afford them, or if the idea can't be implemented by hired guns, then find another idea. It's not like there's a scarcity of ideas out there.

Swinging for the fences

One last thought. A lot of people will respond that many highly successful startups implemented ideas that were outside their reach, and succeeded anyway. YCombinator has made it a successful business model to take founders and virtually catapult them far away from their idea reach, and succeed anyway through a combination of exceptional founder selection and world-class mentoring.

That's a fine business model for YC, a great thing for the world to have, and if you're one of their selected protégés, you should definitely go for it and give it your best. However, this type of proposition is always, naturally more risky. If you can afford to fail without too much damage, swinging for the fences may be the right strategy for you (see this article too). If, however, you've got very limited savings, and failure will propel you back into a corporate environment and a job you hate, then it might be better to focus on achieving survival and comfort first. That's easier with an idea that's within your reach.

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