Some ideas matter, just not the ones you think


Startup wisdom holds that startup ideas don't matter too much because execution is everything. That's largely true, though I think markets do matter and the line between markets and ideas can sometimes be unclear. Also there are plenty of edge cases of ideas that do matter (powder-keg ideas, a deeply knowledgeable team that knows how disruption will unfold in 1-3 years, etc.). I'm not exploring these distinctions here though because I find this debate largely irrelevant in practice. Unless you have a track record, you generally need some traction anyway to get funding; and if you don't need funding, just go execute.

Within execution though, there are ideas that matter lurking. It is those ideas I want to unpack a little.
If you have a product development and traction plan, on the surface you can break that plan down into smaller and smaller pieces and then execute them. I'm going to build this and that feature; I'm going to test Facebook ads; I'm going to try to get promoted on x, y or z.

But when you get into it, there are many ways to synthesize product feedback to decide which features to build and how to build them. Similarly, there are many ways you can present your startup messaging to potential customers and the media, and many traction channels to pursue.

In that space of sub-ideas lurk ones that resonate way more than others, like resonant frequencies (see image). Sometimes these are as simple as a few new words of copy or a slight UX tweak. They are essentially powder-keg ideas within your startup, waiting to be sparked and move the needle.

These ideas matter, and you should be designing processes to surface them as regularly as possible. For each startup team these processes will be different, but here are some general things that I've seen work for me and others.

First, some obvious ones:

  • Have a structured process for dealing with product feedback. Don't act on everything, especially immediately. But log it, synthesize and try to understand why it is occurring.
  • Have a structured process for getting traction. I advocate our Bullseye Framework, but really anything is better than nothing.
  • Always be experimenting. It doesn't have to be explicit A/B testing, though that is good in many situations. But more generally, if you're not experimenting then you're largely decreasing the probability of uncovering resonant ideas.

And some less obvious ones:

  • Horizontally integrate your team, i.e. have them work on multiple areas of the business. For initial founders, I advocate both founders work on product and traction equally. The basic premise here is two-fold. First, outsiders to things coming in often come up with interesting ideas. Second, if you're siloed then you can't easily come up with holistic ideas; oppositely, if more people are exposed to feedback, marketing, product, etc. then they are more likely to do so.
  • Consistently put yourself in a position to be more creative. For me, it is not operating at capacity; for others, the opposite. Lifehacker consistently has good tips like lying down.
  • Do everything you can to be empathetic with your users. Be one if you can, but failing that, watch new users, talk to power users, pester potential users about their problems and how they perceive solutions. This customer development is pretty standard practice up front, but seemingly often gets left behind when product development starts in earnest.
  • Find a consistent place to test messaging, e.g. reddit ads, AdWords -- something with a potential audience that you can tinker with.

I can't impress enough that these resonant ideas are often very small. We've seen tiny wording changes change CTRs from 1% to 5%, for example. When I put up our billboard we doubled our user base that month.

You can think of these ideas as regular usability or marketing improvements, but I think the most resonant ideas are much more. The truly resonant ones change the perception of your product. They click with peoples' previous conceptions of the world. And that is exactly why they are so powerful.

They are psychological. They are the ideas that help you put your foresight of how disruption will unfold into useful practice. And that is why they matter.

Resonant ideas matter in the same way people argue about startup ideas mattering: they are inherently valuable. However, they are nevertheless hard to copy because they usually involve a code iceberg of some kind. You do a small tweak on top of your existing product and marketing infrastructure. The infrastructure is needed to succeed, but you still need to hit the resonant frequency to make the impact you want.

Update: some useful comments on HN.


If you have comments, hit me up on Twitter.
I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.