Finding Ideas

Two weeks ago, after the Softbank-ARM news broke, I stumbled upon this great 1992 interview with Softbank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son. The whole thing is worth reading, but I especially enjoyed a passage where Masayoshi spoke about his early twenties, a time he spent unemployed, reading everything he could find, and thinking about what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing.

Here’s Masayoshi Son:

“I wanted to start my own company when I came back to Japan. I thought of 40 different businesses I could start. It was like thinking of an invention. As a student, I had a hobby of inventing new ideas for products. For me, thinking of new businesses is like inventing new products.

For a year and a half, I did research and made business plans. While I prepared, I had no income. I spent money, I had a new baby. My wife was worried. All my friends, my father, my mother, everybody was worried. They asked me, what are you going to do? You spent years studying in the United States, and now you aren’t doing anything. I spent all my time just thinking and thinking, studying what to do. I went to the library and bookstores. I bought books, I read all kinds of materials to prepare for what I would do for the next 50 years.”

There’s a general narrative thrill here -- “everybody was worried” -- that makes Masayoshi’s story (and the remainder of his interview with HBR) an entertaining read. But there’s also an underlying framework on how to find good ideas. In reading the remainder of the interview, in which Masayoshi outlines this framework, I noticed a few similarities with another approach, Paul Graham’s How to Get Startup Ideas.

If good advice becomes great advice when it’s echoed,* then here are three things that a great idea should be, according to Graham and Son.

Product-focused

“Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas... [Choose] something a small number of people want a large amount.” - PG

“For me, thinking of new businesses is like inventing new products.” - MS

Focus on building something that people need. The business plan comes later. 

Based in the future

“If you're at the leading edge of a field that's changing fast, when you have a hunch that something is worth doing, you're more likely to be right… Live in the future, then build what's missing.” - PG

“I wanted to pick a business where the business category itself would be growing for the next 30 to 50 years. I didn’t want to choose a sinking ship.” - MS

Put yourself on the leading edge of technology. Look to the end game. 

Interesting to you

“Live in the future and build what seems interesting.” - PG

“One success measure was that I should fall in love with a particular business for the next 50 years at least. Very often, people get excited for the first few years, and then, after they see the reality, they get tired of the business. I wanted to choose one that I would feel more and more excited about as the years passed.” - MS

My personal favorite. Focus on learning as much as possible about whatever interests you. If it’s something you’re going to be doing for a long time, you’ll only do it well if it’s something you have a genuine interest in.  

That’s it for this week. There’s plenty more from both Graham and Son (see the links above) but I’ll cap it at three. Thanks for reading.

*let’s note that, per mob psychology, good advice echoed at scale might be a) timeless b) trite c) both or d) sour.