Finding your Métier

Dec 23, 2011 Wisdom 0 comments

When JFDI recruits teams, we are more interested in the people than the idea.

Ideas are free – we believe that at any given time, every possible startup idea, somewhere or other, is being tried by teams of varying levels of skill. Most of those ideas fail because it’s not the right time for that idea; and even when it is the right time, most of the teams fail because they’re not the right team for that idea.

So we look for two things: the idea should be one whose time has come, and the team should be particularly well suited to the idea.

In French, they call it “finding your métier”. Shakespeare said “to thine own self be true.” Guy Kawasaki in The Art of the Start says “Make Meaning.” Rick Warren, bestselling author of “the Purpose Driven Life”, will probably one day write “the Purpose Driven Startup.”

It’s almost a cliché to say this, but the startup you create during your time at JFDI should be a startup that only you could create, and only you would create. If there are a thousand other teams who could be executing your idea, why bother? But if you’re at the leading edge of some field of innovation, and there are only ten other people in the world who are qualified to do what you’re doing, that’s interesting; tell us more.

In the last three months we have visited six countries, heard a thousand pitches, and met a hundred teams.

Certain themes recur. We must have seen a dozen social shopping apps, a dozen Instagram clones (with added geolocation! with more social!), a dozen Pinterest clones, a dozen edutainment apps for children on iPad and Android.

We have a term for these ideas. We call them “tribute” apps. In university, friends will get together, form a band, and play covers of their favourite songs. Computer geeks seem to do the same: they get together, form a band, and reinvent their favourite web and mobile apps. This is natural: for centuries, young artists have been taught to paint by copying the Old Masters.

But they shouldn’t confuse that kind of apprentice work with a masterpiece.

The one thing these clichés had in common was that they were easy. Easy to think of, easy to implement, and, unfortunately, easy to copy. Now, this is partly the nature of Startup Weekend: if you’re going to build something in 54 hours there’s a natural limit to how complex the thing can be.

But even outside Startup Weekend we have received dozens of applications to JFDI that look exactly like the sort of project an academically average undergraduate student might do in a class on Interactive Software Applications: not terribly original, because it doesn’t have to be, and not very hard to implement, because what student would choose an impossibly difficult term project?

An above-average student, that’s who. We’re looking for above-average founders, who are solving hard problems at the cutting edge of a domain in which they have deep experience.

Not everyone meets that description. Entrepreneurship (type III entrepreneurship, at least) isn’t for everyone. It’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s a specific tool for accomplishing a goal, for solving a problem, for creating some benefit; and a great deal of value should be unleashed once that goal is achieved. And not everyone is in a position to do that: most people just don’t have the depth of industry experience or the creative imagination needed to produce an original, innovative insight. Most people don’t have the ability to execute well enough or fast enough to outcompete those who copy them. Most people who apply to JFDI are unfortunately unlikely to succeed for these reasons.

If you’ve been accepted into JFDI, we believe that your team can do good work. The next question is: what work should you do?

This is why we like to work with Type III founders. Alpha geeks are reliably ahead of the curve. Were you a nerd who carried your laptop everywhere with you, back in 2001, so you could get on IRC and read your email all the time? Now everyone carries a laptop everywhere with them, but they call it a smartphone, and they get on Facebook and read Twitter all the time.

If you want to know what the mass market will be doing in ten years, just look at the geeks today. In 1996, Andrew Tridgell and Paul Mackarras released rsync. In 2007, Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi started Dropbox. See the pattern?

We’ve said we avoid Type IV founders: we find their vaulting ambition a little scary. But we ask Type III founders: what are the spurs, that prick the sides of your intent?

What itch do you want to scratch?

What is the biggest problem in your life (and the lives of the people around you), that you can imagine solving? It might take you ten years of your life, the best years of your youth, to solve this problem. You might succeed; you might fail. Even if you did fail, you should be able to say, “it was worth the try.” The startup game isn’t a lottery: it’s a game worth winning, but, well played, it should also be a game worth losing. Does the problem you’re working on meet that description?

After all, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Drew Houston was motivated by a mundane annoyance: he was toting all his shit on a stupid little USB drive. That pissed him off. So he built Dropbox.

What pisses you off? What will you build?

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