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Technology, Dynamic Programming and Entrepreneurship

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Monday, October 17, 2005
Startup School

I just got back from Paul Grahams excellent Startup School. What an incredible experience! If you are a would-be entrepreneur, I would highly encourage you to attend next year. The depth and quality of the speakers was as impressive as any conference I've ever been to. I won't bother to rehash the content, if you are interested, check out this tag on del.icio.us: Startup School. The summaries there are fantastic, and represent an incredible amount of work. I can't wait for the video and audio to be posted.

On sunday following the conference Paul held an open house at Y-Combinator for people who wanted to talk to him in more depth than the 5 minutes allowed between speakers. Additionally several of the Summer Founders were there, including both of the guys from Kiko.com and Aaron Schwartz from Infogami.

I had a great opportunity to talk with a lot of really bright people about their ideas. I also had the chance to see several people pitch their ideas to Paul Graham and to other people at the event. It was very instructive to see how their presentations went, and what ideas people liked and what ideas flopped. Overall people were very nice and very helpful to each other, even people who would potentially be competitors in the marketplace. Here are a some things I noticed about presenting your ideas:

  • A working demo will dramatically increase the effectiveness of your presentation.

  • People don't need all of the background on your idea

  • Boil your idea down to it's core, remove everything that is extraneous and superfluous

  • Know and understand the competitive landscape, be prepared to discuss your idea in that context in great detail

  • Know what you want to do, and how you are going to do it

A Working Demo: This was stressed over and over during the startup school, a working demo is an incredibly powerful and effective way to get your idea across. Why is a demo so important? For one thing a demo separates the doers from the dreamers. A lot of people have good ideas, not many people will go to even the trouble of putting together a demo. I know dozens of people who want to start a business, however the number of people who have done anything in that direction can be counted on one hand. In the end, it all boils down to action. A demo also provides a visceral and concrete representation of your idea. Explaining your idea really is a poor substitute for showing your idea.

People don't need the background: Your presentation shouldn't turn into a teaching lesson on the specifics of your industry or field. I saw someone talking to Paul for almost an hour, he spent a great deal of time trying to explain the background and the specifics of his industry. I think this means he hasn't done the next point, his idea isn't really crystalized yet.

Boil your idea down to it's core: It's important to really know what you are trying do. What problem you are trying to solve, and what differentiates you from your competitors. You should be able to summarize this to someone in less than sixty seconds. That doesn't mean there isn't more elaboration in your idea, but it gives someone a high level context to work within, and something very specific to focus on. The tighter and more focused you can make your idea, the more likely you can actually pull it off. It's much easier to build something that is focused on very specific ideas than it is to build something that is still vague and nebulous in your own mind.

Know the competitive landscape: Ok the other person understands your idea, they know generally what you are trying to do. At this point the natural progression seems to be "Have you seen x?" Where X is something they see as a competitor. Clearly it's not possible to know of every possible competitor out there, but you need to really do some research and understand what your competitors do and don't do. What you like and what you don't like about their systems. Ultimately you need to know why your system is better than theirs, and why people should use your system instead.

Know what you want to do: This might sound simple, but I'm not talking about having a general idea of how the site will work. I mean, you really need to have a pretty solid idea of how you are going to solve the problems you are planning to solve. How do you do this? Build a demo or a prototype.

I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Paul Graham and to Jessica for putting together the Startup School. It was a wonderful opportunity and it was really well done. I would attend again in a heartbeat.

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