Where do good ideas come from?

As I watched this video, parallel between it and the environment that we create on the StartupBus was stark. In this beautifully illustrated video, Steve Johnson asks a question you see in the title and specifically drills down on the impact that our surroundings have on our ideas. Breakthrough ideas are a result of rinse-and-lather process of perfecting a hunch. Hunches are unpredictable, but it’s clear that when one hunch collides with another, often something greater than the sum of their parts is created. On the StartupBus we’ll have people from different walks of life, but all interested in technology and creating something great. I am confident that many of them already have hunches that need to collide with another tiny hunch that can make a big difference and result in something great. Though there’s no short-cut to greatness, the constrained environment of the bus is exactly the type of “space” that encourages collisions of ideas, as discussed in the video. 

Being on this subject begs a couple more additions that have been on my mind in recent months. I’ve been wondering if breakthrough ideas come completely unpredictably, a sort of big-bang in someone’s head, or do they grow out of the process of continuous improvement. Last November world-class chess champion visited this cool company, Palantir, in Palo Alto and spilled his beans saying that “America’s innovation engine is slowing to a grinding halt” and that Apple II was the last revolutionary technology. To add on top of his statements, Peter Thiel (high profile investor known as “Don” of the Paypal Mafia) spoke at Stanford a few weeks later and drilled into idea of “extensive” vs “intensive” innovation. He believes that currently we’re seeing too much extensive innovation, which is the type of innovation where new companies simply copy or slight modify existing ideas and don’t really add to the greater picture of technology landscape. He backed it up with a great example of car industry, when in 1920s there were more than 40 car companies and instead of joining one a smart businessman would have created his own company, just like entrepreneurs are doing today. So both Gary and Peter think that we’ve really slowed down innovation process and that now is the time to wake up and go big.

On the opposite side we’ve got Steve Blank who quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson with his essay titled “When it’s darkest, men see stars”. Steve is very optimistic about the future and lists a number of constraints that served as barriers to entrepreneurship and then goes about showing how each one of those have been or slowly are being removed. 

Something to think about, definitely. Personally I think that big-bangs that Gary Kasparov and Peter Thiel are hinting at, come as a result of long and continuous process of improvement and refinement. Yes there are thousands of startups that can barely be distinguished from one another, but there were dozens of companies that were trying to build a better computer before Apple II came out and got it right. It takes many failed businesses and many iterations of a business to produce something great and that’s what’s happening right now. Granted we just went through a recession, Steve Blank is spot-on that men begin to look at the stars when it’s darkest. 

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