Theatres of the absurd: how to get startup ideas

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Paul Graham’s well known essay, How to get startup ideas. If not, go read it.

The main thesis is:

The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.

There’s a reason that this essay is now a classic: that’s very good advice. But I had a thought last night, as I was filling out a form, of what additional piece of advice I would give if someone asked me how to get startup ideas. My thought is this:

The way to get startup ideas is to look for theatres of the absurd: situations we encounter in life that are completely and totally backwards because of some concession to reality that makes no sense.  

What should you be looking for? Situations where an outside observer will look at a particular state of affairs, and whose immediate reaction will be, “That’s silly.” The funny thing about these situations is that they can be quite hard to see, except in hindsight after they’ve been resolved. For the most part, every individual actor is behaving quite rationally; it’s the overall effect that is both comical and tragic all at once.

One of the best examples I can think of is version control when multiple users are working on a single document. Drew Houston phrases this theatre of the absurd best, when he applied to Y Combinator with Dropbox:

“The ridiculous things people name their documents to do versioning, like ‘proposal v2 good revised NEW 11-15-06.doc’ continue to crack me up.”

Of course that looks absurd when you look at it from far away. But we’ve all been guilty of this. The final version of my Master’s thesis document is named, “2013_07_07 final thesis assembled_AD 4pm final_submitted”. I’m sure you have your own version somewhere.

Screen shot 2014-10-15 at 10.50.17 AM

The answer, now obvious in hindsight, is Dropbox. (and Google Drive, and a multitude of over version control cloud hosting sites. Hackers have had their own versions of this for years, but which never broke out into the mainstream user world.)

What are some other examples of startup ideas that resolve theatres of the absurd?

Here are few I came up with off the top of my head:

Airbnb: Many people travel to faraway places, at great expense, to go experience a new culture. Then, as soon as they get there, they set up their home base (also at great expense) in establishments designed to isolate and remove you from that culture- hotels.

Paypal: In the early days of eBay, payments were mostly handed through personal checks, mailed out through the postal service, which as you can imagine is pretty silly for an online auction service.

Uber: On average, a car spends 95% of its time parked.

Kickstarter: It’s hard to make new things that people might want, because you don’t know if they want them yet, and you don’t have the money to build the thing in order to find out if they do.

Tesla: Back when hybrid cars first became trendy, the Toyota Prius with its weird, triangular shape became extremely popular. What people tend to forget was that the Toyota Camry hybrid, which was a better car, cheaper, and didn’t look so silly, sold terribly. The open secret here was that everyone wanted to drive a Green Car, but only if people saw that they were. So Toyota doubled down on their silly triangle-shaped cars, and other automakers followed suit, by building cars that were deliberately ugly in order to reinforce their drivers’ need for recognition.

While we’re at it, here’s how I’ve been thinking about Backtrack recently:

Backtrack: Our employers pay for us to sit all day, then pay for us to visit a physical therapist to fix our back pain, and then pay big time when we don’t get better and become disabled. Yet they’re perfectly happy to sit by while patients struggle to see whether they’re making any progress in rehab, don’t ask our care providers for any relevant progress metrics or indicators, and then accept high rates of patient disengagement and dropout as inevitable.


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