July 29, 2022

Squaring the corners of your ideas


My computer programmer friend gives me the best advice.

I had recently started working on a new project that was going take at least six months to finish, and here’s what he told me:

There’s a thousand things you could be thinking about at this stage, but right now, focus on making sure your idea is sound. Get the integrity of the spine into good shape. Forget about the format and figure out how your product creates value for people. All the dynamic elements like digital architecture, branding aesthetics and technological design will change multiple times as you iterate. Even the business model and target market will probably evolve. No need to be precious about any of those things. Right now, it’s all about the foundation. The idea. And how the user’s condition will be improved because of it.

It’s such a grounding mindset. Particularly in the early stages of growth, when there are so many doubts and uncertainties about the future of your business. Anchoring yourself in the integrity of the idea does wonders for your blood pressure.

It calms your nerves and reminds you that if you secure the baseline value first, the rest will fall into place. The solid idea becomes like a magnetic field ordering iron filings.

Ycombinator, the startup accelerator that has launched two thousand companies, stresses this foundation on new entrepreneur applications. Investors remind founders that what they’re looking for in an idea is not the type of idea itself, but the level of insight they have about it.

In fact, if investors can see obstacles to an idea that the founders didn’t seem to have considered, that’s a bad sign.

Because this is their idea. They’ve had months to think about it, and the investors have only had a couple minutes when reviewing the application. They shouldn’t be able to come up with objections the founder hasn’t thought of. It brings us back to my programmer friend’s original advice.

There is simply no substitute for doing everything you can to make sure your idea is sound.

The question is, what constitutes a solid idea? How do you evaluate relative goodness?

Home builders use the term squaring the corners, which is the process that forces the foundation layout to be a perfect rectangle. Builders will use basic trigonometry to ensuring their corners are as close to ninety degrees as possible, making the rest of the building process go that much more smoothly.

Think of your creative process in that same way. You have to square the corners of the idea. It has to meet the customer’s pressing needs in a novel way. It has to give them a new frame of reference for solving a specific problem.

Ipod wasn’t a sound idea because of the design aesthetic or the clever product name. Its creative power came from the fact that music listeners never considered the fact that shlepping around nylon disc wallets was such an inconvenience. Apple squared the corners.

Kindle was the same thing. The technology itself was slick, but the true value was that electronic readers gave people a new frame of reference for solving the problem of consuming media on the go. Amazon squared the corners.

How sound is your idea? Have you secured the foundation before you start thinking about future optimizations?

Remember, it doesn’t matter how good your marketing is if the baseline value isn’t rock solid.

Focus on that, and trust that the rest will fall into place.

Could investors see obstacles to your idea that you don’t seem to have considered?