Managing the Idea Buffet

As a follow-up to my post on what an EIR does, I promised to share a little more detail on how I practically go about filtering ideas. Effective filtering, choosing what to engage in and what to respectfully decline fast can be the pillar of effective time management in any case, but even more so when you are growing your own startup ideas list or get bombarded by incoming shiny new things through the dealflow at a firm like Andreessen Horowitz or while networking outside.

The tool I chose to increase control of the process is super simple: write down the list of properties that define an inspiring next venture for you. And then, iterate through discussions.

The actual elements that make the list are very subjective, of course, covering anything from the mission of the new business to the technical aspects or business model preferences to requirements for a personally fulfilling role. They can come from your life experiences (good and bad), education, aspirations and role models. Actually, I’m sure every entrepreneur, or any professional seeking for the next stage of their career has a list like this in their head (at least, sorta-kinda), but the trick is to write it down and actually use it systematically.

Writing anything down in a concise, systematic way makes you understand it better. While writing you reconsider the order and importance of your criteria, and realize how even a nuance in language you use when talking about what excites you can lead to quite different paths. Sometimes you will learn that how most of the world buckets things, might not necessarily work for you: for example, after thinking long and hard about if I want to limit anything about consumer vs enterprise businesses on my list I came to a conclusion that dichotomy is irrelevant for my interests; I ended up adding a bullet about human users and another one about business model simplicity instead.

As far as daily usage goes, I’ve developed the following habits around my list:

  • Do not limit brainstorming your startup ideas list to these criteria, let creativity flow free. Come back later to sort through what you’ve got against your goals.
  • When reviewing the incoming pitch schedule of the week, accept only the ones that promise to satisfy a majority of my list (or: don’t blatantly violate some crucial item – like “no software component” or limited location in my case)
  • When saying “no” to anything, you are actually much better equipped to quickly and honestly explain why. This is respectful and helps preserve relationships for the future.
  • After meeting someone new or catching up with an old friend to chat about your search process, consider sharing the list as a follow-up email. If you are consistent, this will work for meeting notes – and often reveals some new angles you didn’t get to in the conversation. For me, especially fruitful have been follow-ups with other entrepreneurs. They can relate to what you’re doing, will ask smart probing questions about your criteria and often share some new angle your framework triggered into their own thinking.
  • When you have a hard decision to make between a few specific ideas (“should I join a cool startup X as an employee or found a company around my idea Z”), you can actually try to quantify your preferences. Grade each criteria on your list on an arbitrary scale (say from -5 to +5, or 0..10), for each of the ideas being compared. Then sum up the columns and see if any of the ideas notably differs from others, good or bad. Chance to dig deeper into which criteria matter to you more (= should be weighted).

As you go through your search process, the list itself will change. I tend to take a few minutes after any meeting that you felt changed your perspective, open up the Evernote doc with my list and see if I want to add, change or even remove something. The first version of my list looked like this:

Smart/great people
IP versus just some kind of intermediary
Never p/hour — a real product/service company that is scaleable
Creative, quicky, crazy, spikey
Fun, good relationships
Diverse
Doing the right thing — not cutting corners
strong mission/passion

And, this is what my list of criteria has evolved into by today over the last 4 months:

Validation criteria to narrow down choices (v1.8):

Ideally, whatever I end up doing should…

  • solve a notable problem for people and give them direct value (and more time), not help them “waste” time
    • -> where are people solving some really hard problems yet they are relatively clueless about the natural modus operandi of nimble internet startups? (ex: robotics, synthetic bio, drones, space, food, health, education…)
    • -> some themes in themselves feel too “light”, e.g gaming is low prio without, say, educational mission
    • -> open Q: what about other limitations? avoiding just “first world” problems? pure financial engineering is boring too?
  • have a critical software component, not be driven by just rearranging atoms
    • -> coming from consumer/internet/software background, what could I be doing that is NOT consumer/software/internet? what are interesting adjacencies?
    • -> I have little or no hardware/manufacturing/logistics background to win by just doing _that_ part better
  • prefer clean & simple business models over complex multi-edged setups
    • -> transactional, provide-value-get-paid models preferred over advertising & others where user is not the customer
  • stay close to human users and build towards a recognized brand, not sink too deep in the value chain / tech stack
    • -> consumerization of enterprise UX can be cool, but deep layers of enterprise data centers or network security are not personally interesting
  • let winning be decided by innovation & execution, not just regulatory environment or any other dominant party
    • -> healthcare, education, consumer finance, e-democracy have notable yellow flags here
  • scale with little additional human hours
    • ->  consulting/agency models with linear manhours to revenues ratio are not interesting
  • be internationally repeatable in nature, not designed narrowly to only work in a specific market
    • -> not exploiting US-only market failures or regulatory loopholes
  • reside in the intersection of disciplines, not solely in one
    • -> because that’s where the surprises and game changers usually happen, for ex design+engineering, CS+anthropholgy, space+big data, social sciences+mobile…
  • created together with a tight team of co-founders/early staff with shared values, not alone
    • -> I work better in iterative arguments and collaboration than say, dreaming alone & having anonymous contractors execute
  • personal role with full accountability for business and the organisation building it
    • -> co-founder/CEO; or very high bar of scope if not those (COO? CPO? VPP?) and broad influence on the overall org’s direction & culture
  • enable a lifestyle that somehow includes Estonia (and Europe) for my kids, family & myself (e.g a notable part of business tied to Estonia; at minimum spend weeks or a month every summer in Saaremaa at will; retain ties & contribute to Estonian startup scene, etc)

Obviously, this is an illustration for the structure rather than contents of what your list could be.


  • http://300.mg MarkK

    one interesting observation from last business we are working on, is that some aspects/criterias are not obvious in the first iteration of idea. You have to build them into the business over the time. Something that might feel non-scalable in the beginning, might actually become one after you work on that. Same can be true in relation to things like notable problem, simple business model, ..

    Good example from real life is that Google didn’t have clear business model in early days.

    So I would add one important criteria to your list – intuition. It should feel right to you :)

    • http://sten.tamkivi.com Sten Tamkivi

      For sure. Intuition is the part of this art I don’t even try to pose as science and contain in a framework. :)

      Also, it is ok to answer many of these criteria with “who the hell knows” at early stages. But you still can guess which way it will likely tilt. Your GOOG example: doubt they seriously considered they’ll start charging users for every search even very early.

  • toivoe

    “let winning be decided by innovation & execution, not just _regulatory environment_ or any other dominant party-> healthcare, _education_, consumer finance, e-democracy have notable yellow flags here”

    really? how come?

  • Marc Aafjes

    Look what I found from Oct 2012 — early brainstorm on the topic at the GSB :)

  • http://www.jonathanmarks.com Jonathan Marks

    Congrats on the excellent series about the divide between West&Central Europe and the West Coast of the US. Various important ideas there which helped a group of us work out what needs to happen next on this side of the Atlantic. I also appreciate your thoughts on building a better filter. The big problem with many of the accelerators is that they believe success is linked to big numbers. Having 2000 applications for a program sounds like a nightmare to me – how will you pick the right teams and what are they really expecting? I like the Plancruncher.com model, which filters ideas and teams in a clever way, making comparison so much easier. Also, I believe in focussing on companies that are disrupting a particular industry. If the team cannot define what they are disrupting, they get crossed off my list. I don’t believe that those teams who are simply copying stand a chance of displacing the incumbent- alongside those who are either making an existing process better or making a process more efficient. The latter two just create capital but don’t lead to growth.