Startup idea viability

When confronted with any startup idea, ask yourself one simple question: How many miracles have to happen for this to succeed?

If the answer is zero, you’re not looking at a startup, you’re just dealing with a regular business like a laundry or a trucking business. All you need is capital and minimal execution, and assuming a two-way market, you’ll make some profit.

Most successful startups depend on one miracle only. For Airbnb, it was getting people to let strangers into their spare bedrooms and weekend cottages. This was a user-behavior miracle. For Google, it was creating an exponentially better search service than anything that had existed to date. This was a technical miracle. For Uber or Instacart, it was getting people to book and pay for real-world services via websites or phones. This was a consumer-workflow miracle. For Slack, it was getting people to work like they formerly chatted with their girlfriends. This is a business-workflow miracle.

Antonio Garcia Martinez in Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley

How do I know if the idea I have is a business idea, or a startup idea? Is it a viable startup idea? Who would have thought that “miracles” are a good metric for this? Bizarre but totally apt in this realm of Unicorns, Centaurs, Pegasus and Dinosaurs, fortune hunters and Silicon Valley pirates.

What we need

… the self determination theory which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money, and status.

Sebastian Junger in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Each and every day , from when we wake up to when we go to bed at night, what do we do to satisfy these – our three basic intrinsic needs? How many do we satisfy everyday? One? Two? All three?

Does catering to these needs truly make us happier? The theory says so. But to know at a personal level, it is definitely something to experiment with, monitor and analyse.

This would also be one explanation for our hesitation with learning (especially adult learning). How often does our need to feel competent at what we do, hold us back from exploring new opportunities, from learning new things, from risking?

What to do about it? Maybe one trick is to have areas in our lives where we feel competent, and expose select other areas where we experiment with short-term risks.


It’s time. Time is the way to get good at anything. There is no shortcut. It’s just hour after hour after hour of practice.

Trent Hamm in this Simple Dollar post.

It’s new year resolution time. Time for the next version of me. But those radical changes I want – they do not happen instantly. Nor do they happen radically.

From here to there is measured in units of time. And I have to go through hour upon hour, hour by hour to get there.

Remember to remember.

Fundamental business models on the internet

“I contend that there are four fundamental business models on the internet.”

“1. One-shot purchases”
“2. Subscriptions: Or something-as-a-service”
“3. Ads”
“4. Tax: The tax model focuses on earning money when your customer earns money”

Rohan R at

How to make money on the internet? Rohan explains very nicely in this post. I found the first part “I. The 4 core business models” especially enlightening.

Here’s Rohan’s sketch. Where in this sketch do I want to be? What can you build and sell to be there? Can I start with a subscription model and then move over to the tax model? Or can various parts of my product leverage each section?


2 week experiments and 6 week projects

I treat my entire life as 2 week experiments and 6 month projects because, and maybe this is just the way I cope with life and decision making, but I feel that if you make a 5 or 10 year plan that you can reliably hit, almost by definition, you have to set a plan that is below your
current capabilities. Like, if you are an A student you must set a C+ plan for it to be 100% achievable. That I think is just a great way to paint yourself into a very unattractive corner.

Tim Ferriss in his Podcast #175: How to cage the monkey mind (45:08)

I tried this approach  during the second half of 2016. It took me 3 months to iron out the kinks and come up with a system which worked for me. I eventually paired it with Trello and journaling. My productivity on side-projects increased exponentially. Prioritizing became simpler, easier. I was happier, more focused. And I spent the same amount of time as I usually would.

Why did this system work so well for me? Not for the reason that Tim is talking about.

To see why it helped me, I had to first identify the my pitfalls.

  1. I like shiny new projects more than those I am currently working on.
  2. I am unable to limit myself to just one project at a time. I start new projects whenever I have a good idea. The good ideas seem to occur more when when I am in “the Dip” (Seth Godin terminology) or entering the “Trough of Sorrow” (Paul Graham terminology) of a certain project.
    Seth Godin’s Dip Curve

    Paul Graham’s startup curve
  3. I end up working on too many projects at the same time
  4. When I’m working on multiple projects I have an illusion of productivity and it feels good.
  5. I end up scattering my energy.

    Too many projects at the same time
  6. I have trouble finishing projects
  7. I am unable to let go the projects that I cannot do – because of time or interest. That would mean accepting that I’m not productive. Who likes that?
  8. So I am on a spiral of ever-increasing projects and ever-decreasing productivity.

My system helped me trick myself around the problems.

  • I commit to an idea for 2 weeks – just 2 weeks. This is not threatening to the other ideas.
  • At the start, I decide what the success criteria for this experiment are.
  • At the end of 2 weeks, if I do not meet the success criteria, the idea is abandoned. This helps with the ever-increasing projects problem.
  • Two weeks is just enough – I can hold back the temptation to postpone starting a new project. Invariably, this temptation hits me at the start of week one. I tell myself “Surely, you can wait for one more week?”, and I invariable do.
  • Two weeks is also the “good quit point” in Seth Godin’s curve. It is long enough to verify my interest, but not long enough to get suckered by the “sunk cost fallacy”.
  • And if the idea is really great, the next 2-week project can be a continuation of this great idea.

Initially, the “2 week experiment” approach by itself didn’t work well. It started to focus me once I started journaling about the idea in mind: making notes, exploring that idea and exploring why I was drawn to that idea. Once I added Trello to this mix, it really made me productive.

At the start of the 2-week idea period, I create a card in Trello. This card has the project name, the 2 week time period and my pre-determined success criteria. In its description, it also has a living list of subtasks: the idea broken down into many smaller atomic tasks. This list is a starting point. I update this list as and when these atomic tasks change, new ones are needed or they become obsolete.

I also mark the completed tasks and rearrange the order of tasks so that they are always in sequence — this way, I always know what’s next.

Trello “2-week card” for a new project – “Redesign website”

So what about the 6-month project? I have one ongoing project — the recording of Moral Letters vol 2 for Librivox. I I can evaluate the 6-month project schedule when I finish it.

A Review of 2016

My successes and failures from 2016.

Planned and Successful

  1. Goal: Change career and become a Front End Web Developer.
  2. Goal: Work on developing and popularizing SoFoBoMoPartial Success: Michael is now a part of the SoFoBoMo initiative. We ran SoFoBoMo 2016. But I had planned a lot more which I didn’t get to.
  3. Goal: Improve handwriting.Partial Success: I have tweaked my handwriting so that LiveScribe can transcribe my notes correctly 99% of the time.

Unplanned Achievements

  1. Started recording “Moral Letters Vol II” by Seneca for Librivox.
  2. Climbed outside at The Emeralds, Mt. St. Helena and Alabama Hills
  3. Built a website for a friend, first using Polymer, then using plain old Bootstrap.
  4. Family trips to Vancouver and Costa Rica.
  5. Getting to learn Java on the job.
  6. Better sleep. Thanks to sleep tracking via Fitbit, Yogi Caramel Bedtime Tea and earplugs.
  7. Finding my productivity/essentialism strategy (for now): 2 week Idea / 6 month project by Tim Ferriss in this podcast.
  8. Working on Project LittleReads.

Planned but failed

  1. Goal: Develop and market a web app targeted towards readers who like to take notes. Project Name: ScribblerReason for failure: This project was too big, too complex. The project plan did not work. Also more interesting projects waylaid me.
  2. Goal: Make a new wallpaper every month and submit to Smashing Magazine.Reason for failure: I underestimated the time needed to do this every month, and overestimated my enthusiasm for this.
  3. Goal: Train to climb betterReason for failure: Many. Failure in commitment and discipline, weight gain are the major ones. I did climb a lot more this year and got marginally better, but am definitely stuck in my plateau.
  4. Goal: Investment Reading PlanReason for failure: here
  5. Goal: 4 Family Camping trips.Reason for failure: These were scheduled, campsites booked, but got cancelled at the last minute.

The Easy way

I don’t expect it to be a battle, and so it’s not.

We probably do this a lot—live with lifelong impediments only because we assume we’ve exhausted the simplest approach.

David Cain at Raptitude

“I tried it once and quit because it didn’t work for me the very first time.” Which are these in my life?

“These skills are so hard. Onerous hardship is the only way of becoming proficient in these skills.”.

“I find these ways of being really hard. But I still need to do them. Oh, this is so overwhelming.” Which are these?

Time Management, Learning, Shipping, Selling…

If I decide these were really easy, what would be the simplest, easiest way of learning and implementing these skill? How would I feel doing them? What would my approach be?

How to choose?

You are overwhelmed. Too many things to do. Too many things you want to do. Too little time. You have to pick one because, after all, at any given instant, we can only be doing one thing. So how do you choose?

How about this criteria?

When a life or plan feels ultimately unsatisfying, I find it’s because I’ve forgotten to include:
– what makes me happy
– what’s smart (long-term good for me)
– what’s useful to others.

Derek Sivers in Happy, Smart, and Useful