Whisper Ideas 👀
How to choose the right startup idea.
**this story first appeared on Fast Company w/ a more click-baity title**
I was unbeatable at H-O-R-S-E growing up.
I’d invite friends to come play in my driveway after school. When the game got close, I’d pretend to have an idea: “Hey — I wonder if I can make a shot from way back on the grass off one bounce? Ha! Wouldn’t what be crazy?!” I’d really sell it.
Then I’d drain the shot and win. Every time.
My poor victim had no idea I’d taken that shot hundreds of times. Maybe thousands. That I knew exactly which crack in the driveway to aim for, and that if I threw the ball hard enough off that crack I couldn’t miss — our worn down backboard would deaden every shot and the ball would drop right in. I’d even named the shot after one of my favorite Knicks players at the time, Rolando Blackman. Nope, you weren’t beating me when I broke out the Rolando Crackman.
Your startup idea probably won’t work. That’s not news — you know that 95% (or whatever that number is) of startups fail.
What is news is why you’ll fail. After being pitched 571 idea-stage, pre-product startup pitches in the past 24 months — most as applications for my pre-product accelerator — I’m convinced it’s not just because “startups are really hard.”
Startups are hard, obviously, but the majority of founders make them impossible. You’re doomed from day one because you’re starting the wrong thing. You never had a shot.
And it’s not your fault.
The way people think about startup ideas is fundamentally wrong. And the right way — like any startup theory worth it’s salt — is counterintuitive.
You’ll only have a handful of opportunities to completely immerse yourself in a project. I’m here to help you identify the ones that give you an unfair advantage.
I’m here to help you find your Rolando Crackman.
The Villain: Whisper Ideas
Classpass for meditation studios isn’t a bad idea.
I got pitched ClassPass for meditation studios last week (the founder gave me permission to use this story in the post). I’ve been pitched this idea before, and theoretically, it could work. It certainly sounds like something that would exist.
ClassPass for Meditation is what I call a Whisper Idea. It’s in a group that includes Waze for crowded bars, Waze for parking spots, an app for daily wardrobe recommendations, an app for groups of friends to date each other, and about fifty other “uber/waze/airbnb for x” variations. I’d guess that 90% of the ideas I hear are Whisper Ideas.
I started calling them Whisper Ideas because whenever founders pitch them to me, they lean in real close. We’re usually at a coffee shop, they’ve usually asked me to sign an NDA, and they’re always giving everyone in the place the side-eye emoji 👀. The founders of Whisper Ideas never know who’s listening.
This particular founder was razor sharp. McKinsey and HBS. I listened as she rehashed conversations she’d had with customers on both sides of the market; people who ran meditation studios and people who meditated. Everyone was on board.
She’d saved for a year and had recently hired a development shop to build version 1 — an app that would allow customers to subscribe to the monthly service and book classes at participating studios. The back-end would even play nice with the studios’ existing booking software.
Her plan was to start with ten studios in the West Village to prove the concept. Next, she’d raise a seed round and expand. Validate, raise, expand, hire, grow. Rinse, repeat.
She nailed the pitch. It all sounded so… logical. And that’s why Whisper Ideas are so dangerous.
In your non-startup life, logical is good. Incremental growth is good. Overwhelming external validation is good. When this founder told her friends about her ClassPass for meditation idea, they validated it. “Act fast,” they said. “This is the one.”
Founders working on Whisper Ideas never think the risk is in the idea. The biggest risk is always speed. They tell themselves it hasn’t been built yet because no one has thought of it yet. ClassPass was obvious after the fact, this will be, too.
When your biggest differentiator is simply “no one has thought of this yet” — well, you whisper.
The Hero: The Idea Hourglass
I visualize every startup idea as an hourglass filled with sand.
The minute you start pursuing an idea, you flip that hourglass over. The sand is the amount of time you’ve got to build something meaningful. The amount of sand you start with is variable — it’s based on a bunch of inputs like founder, domain expertise, team, market, funding potential/needs, key insight, and customer. The more unique or elite your advantage is in any of those categories, the more sand goes in the hourglass.
The goal of your startup idea is to maximize your initial portion of sand. This is the polar opposite of a Whisper Idea.
You aren’t picking an idea you need to execute fast, you’re picking an idea that allows you to build slow.
The holy grail is when your hourglass has more sand than anyone else’s possibly could if they chose to pursue something similar. No need to whisper if you’re the only one who can do it.
This approach brings up two big questions:
- Why do I need so much time? Why is slow good? I thought I was supposed to “move fast and break things?”
The first version of your product will be wrong. So will the second, third, and probably fourth. Even if you’re the most qualified person in the world, it’ll take a long time to build the right thing. For example, it took ClassPass three years to find their way to a product that resonated.
The sand in your hourglass buys you the time to make mistakes. You don’t need to spend precious time learning the nuances of the market or customer or problem; you know more about this than anyone. You get to spend your time figuring out the hard, unpredictable stuff.
You get to build slowly. To focus on a small group of people, build something small and specific they love, then expand. Because you know how to segment customers and what small product will add value.
Founders with Whisper Ideas don’t have enough time to learn the nuances of the customer needed to build something small, simple, and useful. So they build something big and hope it resonates — ClassPass for meditation. Their margin for error is zero.
2. Does this mean I can only start something in a space where I’m already an expert?
If you want to give yourself the best shot at success… yes.
I subscribe to the growth mindset, so it pains me to say that founders should only pursue ideas in areas where they already have overwhelming expertise. But that’s how it goes. You’ll need to learn a ton as you build. You’ll need all your energy focused on learning the nuances of a space, not the space itself.
Of course, you can also hire for this. You may have an insight into the consumer side of the lunch delivery business. If you want to leverage that insight, you better partner with someone who has food sourcing knowledge and experience with that supply chain, or you’ll end up spending the sand your insight provided to learn the nuances of the industry.
The startup idea you pursue should be one you’ve been unconsciously preparing for your whole life. It should be about your strengths, not just a gap you see in a market. What are you, uniquely, incredible at? What do you know that no one else does? The first thing you should ask yourself when you have an idea is “why are you the best person to start this?”
If you ever find yourself sitting in a coffee, quietly pitching your startup idea while doling out that side-eye emoji… stop. Whisper Ideas never work. But there’s undoubtedly an idea you’re the best person in the world to pursue. One that you can scream from the rooftops. Find it.
**Hey, you made it to the bottom! If you’re an idea stage founder looking to validate and grow your idea, give us a shout at Tacklebox**