Good Startups Sound Terrible (at first)

August 7th 2017

Successful companies, at the start, often sound like terrible ideas.

If these startup ideas sounded so good, big companies would be doing it already.

Take Microsoft for example. When they were starting out, everyone thought the money was in hardware. Software was thought to be easy to build and because it was free to duplicate, would be difficult to price high. No big company wanted to write software. That’s how Microsoft were able to operate for so long. When the large incumbents finally realised their folly, Microsoft was too large to stop.

Here are what the early elevator pitches of successful tech companies sounded like:

Facebook: Myspace and Friendster already exist. But we’re going to beat them because we’re putting your relationship status online. Also, we’re only available to Ivy League schools.

Instagram: Filters! We got filters!

Twitter: It’s like blogging but only 140 characters long. So far, people post a lot updates of what they ate for lunch.

Google: We’re going to build yet another search engine. Unfortunately, because we don’t want to put up banner ads, we’ve got no revenue stream to pay for those expensive servers. (this was at a time when banner ads were the only way to make money on the internet.)

Linkedin: Everyone will post their CV online and make it public. Then, they’ll login and update their accounts every 2 years, when it’s time for a new job.

Tesla: We’re going to build an affordable electric car 7 years after General Motors, the world’s largest car company, closed down their electric car program because electric cars cost too much to build.

PayPal: Technology to help people send money via email. Russians are hacking our customers email accounts and stealing a million dollars a month. Also, we don’t have a banking license.

Apple: We’re building a consumer computer that doesn’t do anything. It costs 3’000 USD (in 2017 dollars)

Netscape: The internet is slow, full of crappy websites and no one is making any money. We’re selling a browser that people can use to surf around this wasteland.

Snapchat: We’ll make messages that disappear after 6 seconds. People will spend hours a day on it.

With the exception of a handful, many of the founders of the above companies had no idea their little terrible ideas would grow to be so big. Robert Cringely, who wrote about early dot com companies, aptly titled his book “Accidental Empires”

Great startup ideas often sound terrible at the start. The reverse however, isn’t true.