MARKET RESEARCH 1 - HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR OWN STARTUP
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So you’ve finally reached a point where you can work on your own project. You have money saved up, and months to spare to do nothing but work on your new baby instead of client projects. For once!
You’re experienced enough to know that you may not get this shot again any time soon. So what you work on has to be what makes it so you never have to do client work again. The project must be able to either make money on its own or warrant being able to raise money for it from serious Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The project must also “float your boat” so to speak. I think the latter is most important.
There was a time when all I cared about was “can it make money?” or “will investors be likely to invest in it?” or “who’s likely to acquire this? Google?” etc. I could be selling toilet paper and I wouldn’t care--as long as it was very likely to make me rich. This sort of thinking is what spurred the idea for SnackSquare. SnackSquare was a startup that aimed to deliver SMS text messages to people near stores when they were near it. The magic was that we would track people’s checkins on Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter to know where they are. And then send SMS text messages on behalf of neighboring businesses to bring them in. To come up with this idea, I followed the trends closely, and predicted that this is where the market was going and that other businesses would eventually figure this out, and people one day would come to expect this location based advertising--i.e. there would be a serious need for such a product, and I'd be far ahead of the curve by making it. The problem was there weren’t enough ways to get this information. There still basically isn’t (as of August 2011) because people don’t check in enough, and because striking deals with carriers to get these locations was extremely difficult, and still didn’t get you bonafide opt-ins from users. So anyway, the point is we were ahead of our time, and still are--but did I love location based advertising? No. Not really. And honestly, I think most people don’t really love what their startup is about. I’m sorry, but if you’re Zappos.com, shoes can only make you so happy. If you’re even Google, optimizing search algorithms can only go so far. Or in Facebook’s case, helping everyone else socialize and feel more connected doesn’t do that much for you when you just as well rather go use those tools to socialize yourself. And maybe that’s the truth of basically any job, it ultimately isn’t as good as spending time with friends and family. But then again, maybe it’s that your company is an extension of your family.
The point is your project must give you that deeper meaning in life you’re looking for, and I’m not sure every software application--no matter what market need it pinpoints or problems of the world it solves--will do that for you. You need to be very discerning about what you decide to commit your life to, and first and foremost you must realize to be successful this must the one and only project you commit yourself to or you'll be spread too thin and none will succeed. These software startup applications are hard to get right! If Facebook truly did start out as a way for young Zuck to meet girls, that definitely wasn’t the case for him--at least not back then. How could that be what he truly wanted to do when he can meet girls a lot more easily in the real world than having to work grueling hours to maintain the world’s most popular social application. If he put more thought into it, he might not have done it. Either way, over time it seems he's rejiggered its purpose to one more in line with what he truly wants, i.e. connecting the world. I just don't buy that he put that self-introspection in at the beginning to know that's what he wanted to do, and I still don't fully buy connecting the world is what he truly wants to do. It sounds more like his marketing pitch for his purpose in life that he just stumbled on. Now he's sucked into this Facebook thing. If he had a year to step back, he may realize it's something totally different he wants to put his time into.
Anyway, so to paint a picture of what does qualify as something you truly want to do from your core--or at least what meets my standards--I’ll describe the application I’m currently working on: DreamMakerApp.com. Dream Maker App is a tool for anyone to accomplish their dreams through. To start--in order to follow the FaceySpacey execution formula--it’s a simple tool where people can share a small number of goals that make up their dream (5 to be exact), and get advice on them, favors for them, and of course contribute the same to other people’s dreams. The end goal however is a learning machine and knowledge generation machine. In the future it will be powered by what I think is a revolutionary way to crowd-source knowledge. Think Wikipedia on steroids. Specifically, it allows people to build tutorials from their own knowledge and the world’s knowledge already in the system in a structured way that synthesizes and relates information in a way that is visually the most easy way to learn from. It follows the principles of studying something “General to Specific.”
But that's only the first part. The end goal is that this tool will help me find the meaning of life and how we as humans came to be as we are. It will figure out what existence is and its laws. Without going into too much detail about it--since this isn’t an informercial for my own product--I’ll share one last thing: basically I’ve created my own method for studying a subject to learn it as efficiently as possible. I invented this method when I learned to program. I was in a situation where I had to become a coding guru if I ever had any hope of completing some client projects that my life (and my finances & integrity) depended on me getting done. So I plowed through tens of programming books--just the right books--and got my skills to a professional level in record time. DreamMakerApp’s end goal is to help anyone do the same with what they want to learn and therefore make their dreams come true. It crowdsources recipes to learn things and hopefully will crowdsource discovering what existnce is at a very deeply level. And here’s the most important part: it will become so useful that I too will use it to learn new things I want/need to learn. My hope is it will spawn a new system of education, and change the way schools are run. My hope is that it will crowd-source the discovery of many of the world’s problems and things we, as the human race, do not know yet, and otherwise could take centuries to figure out. It will be the genome of the world’s knowledge. And I decided that this is what I truly wanted to do because I took inventory of myself and realized that at many stages of my life I was driven by a deep curiosity to figure out what life is and how to best play this game of life. So now I'm building a tool to help me attain that goal.
Therefore, a key sign that you're building what you truly want is if you're building something that will help you accomplish something non-money related that you always wanted to do, most likely unrelated to programming.
Here are more reasons why this is the perfect project for me:
1) I discerned that what’s always interested me the most is finding the world’s answers. The answers about existence, etc. That’s really what gets me going. Not building applications that make money or solve world peace. The world peace bit may truly be your goal. And maybe it’s mine too ultimately, but where my humble goal lies is just in figuring out as much as I can about life. And that’s what DreamMakerApp is intended to do, and make happen at a rapid pace through its crowd-sourced usage.
2) It represents what I’m truly about. I realized that most my friends and family think I’m all about money. Money Money Money! That was my claim to fame. But that’s not good. That’s not what life’s all about. And that’s not what I’m truly about--I just settled for that and gave everyone the wrong impression. So, people are important. There’s a time and place for everything. Often it’s very important not to give a shit what people think. Other times it is--i.e. for the people you love and care about. DreamMakerApp represents what I’m truly about, and tells that to the world: again, making dreams come true. That’s why I got into software. Software is the closest thing to magic on earth, and if I can help people make their dreams come true, I’m making real life magic happen.
3) Compared to many other applications, I’m best trained to get this project done efficiently. I’m best as an interface developer, and DreamMakerApp’s power comes from its interface which lets people structure information in a way tailored for learning, as well as learn it easily once structured. It’s taken me years to master my craft. I only have so many years on this planet. So whatever I do must use the skills I’m best at, especially since I only have so many years on this earth to learn these skills.
4) There still is big money potential, and yes I still want to make money. It’s just not top priority, but is still a priority, which is why it’s here at #4. The education system is screwed and in the shitter. Education is one of the biggest industries in the world, and one of the most under-served industries because of current incumbents that won’t let new technology into schools. I know this point is sounding much more like a standard business plan reason for doing a project, and that’s precisely what it is. Again, it’s just not top priority...So anyway, lots of money can be made here too. I won’t just be broke as a result, which I don’t recommend to anyone in the name of doing good. Final Note here: there are lots of acquisition targets that will love to get their hands on it once they see its power--I think it's perfect for Google when they get the Education in bug in a few years.
5) I need to make my mark on the world. Everyone has that goal whether they believe it or not. It's what procreation is about. Making your mark on the world and procreation in general are a manifestation of our innate desire to live forever. Deep inside ourselves, whether we realize it or not, we realize we're more than just one person, but a species (and ultimately everything in the Universe). So to further our true selves--again, that means our species and universe--we must create something as lasting as possible. I've determined that a learning and teaching engine powered by everyone in the world is the way to make the absolute most biggest mark possible! Think of the proliferation of open source and how much code has been built so quickly, i.e. like in Linux. An engine that empowers everyone to work together to discover life's mysteries means our species can work most efficiently to find these answers. That engine has the potential to discover all the startups that should be built in the following year that we'll see on Techcrunch in a fraction of the time it takes isolted entrepreneurs to dream up those ideas on their own. It will commoditize innovation. If I can build that engine, I've made the biggest mark possible....So that's me having gotten in touch with my true aim in life--simply to make the biggest mark possible while satisfying my own need for answers.
So that’s why that project hits the spot for me. The main reason is really #1: my whole life I’ve been curious about the answers to life, and I intend to make this tool help find them. Period. That’s been the driving theme of my life, and what I feel is the reason I’ve been put on this earth. I used to think that reason was to make money and build an empire, but empires come and go, and I want to make something truly lasting. I want to make my mark. Point blank period. It’s cliche, but it’s true. And I think it’s true for all real entrepreneurs, and really everyone in one way or another. I think Facebook is more akin to an empire. It definitely has figured out a bunch of stuff, and will continue to (same with Apple, and Microsoft), and will influence generations of inventors to come. However, i want to make a discovery engine that will churn out mountains of discoveries, not just a few. What Microsoft has done for computing and software can be explained in one book. DreamMakerApp will be a tool that never stops making discoveries, and lets anyone contribute to them, and the result will be libraries of discoveries. And as a result, I will be able to make the biggest mark possible.
Whatever you do, shoot to make your mark. Do you really find fooling around with gizmos to be fun? Finding out what cool bars and coffee shops are near you (ehem Foursquare)? Tweeting 140 characters back and forth between friends? Like, what I’m saying is “fun” your true end goal. Is that really what makes you tick. Plain old “fun.” That’s what most of the applications on Techcrunch do--and if they don’t, they help extract money from these “fun networks” like all the facebook, search engine and twitter advertising and metric companies. To me, at least, fun is not enough for me to have a complete life. I think people armed with better information about existence, life, and the cosmos will have even more fun and enjoyment than people who rely on going out and drinking on the weekend like most of us (including myself) currently do.
That all said, the real takeaway is that you need to look back on your life and figure out what really has made you tick all along. What theme has been present in all stages of your life. I don’t have all the answers--yet ;) . I could be wrong--maybe you don’t have to make the biggest mark to find the meaning you need. Without a world-changing communication tool like Twitter or knowledgebase like Wikipedia or awesome tech blog like Techcrunch, I may have never had the opportunity to figure out the above idea I'm developing. So smaller marks are probably just fine to put your mind to. But there must be something that is innately “you” that you should be doing. Are you doing that or just grabbing the first hot idea that embellishes on products you’ve seen on Techcrunch? Is your product just solving the natural progression in market needs? When people see it and hear about it, will they say to themselves: “That’s so you. Now I truly get you”? Or will they think: “oh, wow, you made a lot of money selling widgets on the net. great for you.”?
You need to truly evaluate your life to figure out what startup you should do. You need to imagine you will do this and only this for the rest of your life, and determine if that will work for you--because these startups take a long time and you may very well be doing this for a while. Will that be the work contribution you want to make to the world in your life (outside of your family)?
After you’ve done all of that self-consultation, then run it through the same standard business plan filter you should have ingrained in your head by now from all the Techcrunch and Mashable articles you’ve read. You still need to make sure it can make money, and you can actually execute it because it’s not too pie in the sky. And maybe you’ll have to tweak it a bit, or plan monetization features for the future, but overall it’s still the same essence you were going for unobstructed by financial goals.
So that’s the end of this “tutorial”--although, sure, it’s basically my opinions, and lacking actionable to-dos like I hope you’d find in my other tutorials. So all I can say is just look long and hard for what’s “you”--something you've always wanted to do long before you were programmer--and you probably will have to spend a lot of time doing projects that don’t cut the mustard to figure it out, and not much I can say can aid that. Anyone who has worked a long time for a company or clients, or even their own grueling projects, will eventually come to the conclusion that for whatever I do next I must be able to earnestly say to myself that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.