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Start with the spark, not the fire

4 min read

It took me too long to realize I had my head in the clouds.

When I co-founded Known, I had a huge vision: a world where everyone had full control of their identity and content online. Anyone could create a stream of content anywhere - on a web host, on a device they kept in their living room, on their pick of services - and access it using whatever aspects of their identity they wanted to share. The whole web would become a collaborative canvas which would revolutionize business, creativity, and the internet itself. We wouldn't be beholden to these giant, centralized silos of data and value any longer.

It was an exciting vision - which led to a few obvious questions.

Like: where will you start?

How, exactly, do you get there?

How will you make money in the meantime?

Who is this for? No, not "content creators"; not "millennials"; certainly not "everyone". Who exactly will use this tomorrow? Two years from now?

We were lucky that Matter bought into our vision. Its accelerator changed how I think about building products, and literally changed my life (long before I joined the team). Part of the structure included a monthly venture design review, where we would pitch an experimental version of our venture, and a panel of experts (investors, founders, mentors) would give us their brutally honest feedback.

The first time we pitched our startup at a venture design review, we were eviscerated. We hadn't answered any of those questions. We did have working code, but we couldn't articulate who it was for, and how it connected to this bigger vision. It was the first time we received truly honest feedback, and it felt like a punch in the stomach.

It's not enough to have working code. It's not enough to have a vision. You've got to have a holistic, concrete understanding of your entire venture and the context it sits within.

Your vision can be a raging fire that might change the world. But you can't have a fire without a spark that takes hold.

So, I learned not to let go of that vision, but to take my head out of the clouds and bring myself down to earth. It's easy to have a big, romantic notion; it's much harder to put the actual nuts and bolts together to get a real venture off the ground. To do that effectively, you have to find: the real people you want to serve, get to know them personally and gain really unique insights about their needs, and then build the smallest possible thing that will meet those needs.

That smallest possible thing is probably embarrassing to you. It's almost certainly the grand invention you had imagined. But as Paul Graham once wrote:

Don't be discouraged if what you produce initially is something other people dismiss as a toy. In fact, that's a good sign. That's probably why everyone else has been overlooking the idea. The first microcomputers were dismissed as toys. And the first planes, and the first cars. At this point, when someone comes to us with something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.

Microcomputers, planes, and cars all started as something small for a very limited audience, but they've rewritten how all of human society works.

Conversely, take the Segway: a product whose inventor dreamed would change how cities were designed. It had a grand vision but failed to understand its core users or create a strong hypothesis of how it would grow. They're now the domain of mall cops and goofy city tours. The company now makes those electric scooters used by startups like Lime and Bird, which were created with a concrete human use case in mind. But they orginally started fire-first, rather than spark-first, and faltered.

You have to nail the spark before you can grow. I still speak to a lot of startups, and many of them fail to understand this. They want to go big first; the vision is the fun bit, and is the emotional core that drove them to found their venture to begin with. It's where a whimsical idea hits the road and becomes real work. But it might be the most important business lesson I ever learned.