daily articles for founders

Running a startup in the UK (or with a UK subsidiary)? Get in touch with my company, GrantTree. We help with government funding.
Frighteningly ambitious startup ideas  

Paul Graham nails another top notch post. The series of ideas, ranging from new search engines and email replacement to medical monitoring devices and "the next Steve Jobs", are all frighteningly difficult to pull off. One might even argue that they are the kind of ideas where being unaware of your long-term goal is actually an advantage - otherwise, you'd have to be utterly insane to pursue them.

The real value of this post to almost everyone who will read it is not in the ideas, imho, but in the introduction:

One of the more surprising things I've noticed while working on Y Combinator is how frightening the most ambitious startup ideas are. In this essay I'm going to demonstrate this phenomenon by describing some. Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.

Don't worry, it's not a sign of weakness. Arguably it's a sign of sanity. The biggest startup ideas are terrifying. And not just because they'd be a lot of work. The biggest ideas seem to threaten your identity: you wonder if you'd have enough ambition to carry them through.

There's a scene in Being John Malkovich where the nerdy hero encounters a very attractive, sophisticated woman. She says to him: Here's the thing: If you ever got me, you wouldn't have a clue what to do with me.

That's what these ideas say to us.

This phenomenon is one of the most important things you can understand about startups. You'd expect big startup ideas to be attractive, but actually they tend to repel you. And that has a bunch of consequences. It means these ideas are invisible to most people who try to think of startup ideas, because their subconscious filters them out. Even the most ambitious people are probably best off approaching them obliquely.

Frighteningly ambitious startup ideas are frightening for a reason. Some (particularly those who aren't chasing those ideas themselves, but instead just investing in others who are) might feel that it's a good thing for a founder to be frighteningly ambitious, but for the vast majority of founders, that simply condemns them to failure. That's why they're afraid: because they have some common sense.

Of course, it all depends on what you're trying to achieve. If you want comfort or wealth, those hyper-ambitious ideas will practically guarantee that you never get there unless you basically win the lottery.

On the other hand, if you are an insane, driven, megalomaniac control freak like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, a modern-day Genghis Khan or Alexander who wants to rule the world by the methods of today rather than bloody battlefields, you don't care about achieving comfort, and you probably won't care for this blog post either.

Go for it, don't let me stop you (I couldn't anyway). For the rest of us, though, a focus on less frightening ideas might allow us to make enough money to purchase those world-changing devices that the next Steve Jobs will build, instead of being broke all the time.

More from the library:
Acquiring startups for a living
Disrupt or compete
Your product is not the product