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Startup Ideas and Living in the Future

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In his essay ‘How to get startup Ideas’, Paul Graham talks about “living in the future”. When you look at successful startups in hindsight, the idea seems so obvious. Skype: Of course people want to have free video calls over the internet; Airbnb: Of course people want a network of cheap accommodation across the globe; Hailo: Of course people want to be able to easily order a taxi. But a few years ago these things didn’t exist. Someone had to realize: ‘This is the status quo, I could do x and y, and that would change the status quo.’ That person was living in the future.

So I’ve decided to do what I can to live in the future too. I’ve even added it to my goals of 2014. I’ve broken the concept of living in the future down into four areas:

  1. Attention: I’ve committed to writing down everyday problems I notice, because, as Paul Graham argues, this is how you come up with startup ideas (not by trying to think of startup ideas). After just a few weeks of doing this, I’ve been surprised at how much stuff I’ve come up with. I’ve forced myself to use what Daniel Kahneman refers to in Thinking Fast and Slow (book summary here) as the ‘system 2’ part of my brain. The truth is that really thinking about problems you face takes effort, it requires you to be mindful. And most people rarely make the effort for a sustained length of time. I am fighting against the impulse to avoid the effort.
  2. Understanding Technology: I continue to learn more about technology. Learning web development has been enormously thought provoking. I doubt I will ever be a great coder (though I do not rule it out), but I certainly will be able to have intelligent conversations with people who are great coders, and will understand the difficulties, time-scales and costs of the technical aspects involved in a startup on a much deeper level.
  3. Networking: Often the best ideas are stimulated when two very different ideas are combined. This is usually because two people got talking and something clicked. This is undoubtedly my weakest area. I am an introvert. I hate networking. But I also often feel a real urge for a true startup partner. Someone willing to put in the kind of effort I am. I’ve taken steps to address this, contacting old friends, people I trust, and seeing who has realised that the corporate world isn’t as fulfilling as they might have hoped. I’ve forged plans and alliances. I will attend more meetup.com events (I went to a terribly bad one in Beijing before Christmas that I’ll write up at some point). I must admit though, that this area could do with a lot of improvement.
  4. Imagination: Imagination is required to connect the dots between the problems you notice, and potential solutions. I’ve been trying to stimulate that side of myself by returning to an old hobby: creative writing. I’ve been writing fiction every week, and had forgotten how good it can feel. By writing science fiction, I’ve also forced myself to consider technological trends and their potential implications. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a novella by the end of the year!

In summary, I feel like the formula for living in the future is four-fold:

Attention + Understanding of Tech + Networking + Imagination = Living in the Future

where:

Living in the Future = Startup

Hardly a great revelation, but by asking myself, what am I doing to stimulate these four areas? I realized that I had been neglecting some, and hope that my adjustments will address this. Have you got all four elements covered?

This year I will apply for startup funding. I’m going to make sure that in 2014 I’m living in the future.