Reasonable Words: Frank Talk on Start Ups

Finally read Paul Graham’s candid talk on start ups (the one that gets passed around from college kid to college kid in CS depts.) Candid, funny and insightful; herewith a couple of choice bits:

Graham On Having A User Focus

I learned something valuable from that [changing to user focus]. It’s worth trying very, very hard to make technology easy to use. Hackers are so used to computers that they have no idea how horrifying software seems to normal people. Stephen Hawking’s editor told him that every equation he included in his book would cut sales in half. When you work on making technology easier to use, you’re riding that curve up instead of down. A 10% improvement in ease of use doesn’t just increase your sales 10%. It’s more likely to double your sales.

How do you figure out what customers want? Watch them. One of the best places to do this was at trade shows. Trade shows didn’t pay as a way of getting new customers, but they were worth it as market research. We didn’t just give canned presentations at trade shows. We used to show people how to build real, working stores. Which meant we got to watch as they used our software, and talk to them about what they needed.


As usual, Scott Adams got there first.

….. And later on…Graham on Flying Low

Another way to say that is, if you try to start the kind of startup that has to be a big consumer brand, the odds against succeeding are steeper. The best odds are in niche markets. Since startups make money by offering people something better than they had before, the best opportunities are where things suck most. And it would be hard to find a place where things suck more than in corporate IT departments. You would not believe the amount of money companies spend on software, and the crap they get in return. This imbalance equals opportunity.

Lots of interesting things, even for somebody like me who had and has no thought of being involved in a start up (despite friends who are thriving in them). I was particularly struck by his bursting of the myth that the initial idea itself has to be so jaw-droppingly amazing; it’s enough just to make some technology suck slightly less. And speaking as a former business IT person for two small companies, his words about corporate IT ring true. So much money and so much time for software that at its best is only not totally borked.

The entire talk is well worth reading if this world interests you at all.

And if you would rather just laugh, there’s always “the start up guys.”

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