Allan Isfan is a co-founder of FaveQuest, a young start-up. This blog covers start-up topics.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


what a great idea

Thanks everyone for the great responses!! It is very encouraging to see so many of you checking out the blog and actually find it interesting. This has already spawned several good side conversations around the music topic in addition to entirely new ideas.

Before going any further and jumping into the topic of this post, some guidelines and groundrules are in order:
-I strongly encourage you to put in comments. I've made it extra easy by opening comments to anyone (no need to register) and you can even make the comments anonymous. Feel free to go back to older posts and inject your thoughts.
-please pass on the link .... blogs are most effective when seen by many people and I need your help to spread the word. Copy your contacts, and especially other bloggers.
-as you may have noticed, there are google ads at the top of the page. As with any google ads, the affiliate (me in this case) and google share in the ad revenue. However, the end customer does get charged when people click on the ad so keep that in mind and don't abuse
-also note that I've included a google search box. Feel free to search from there if something pops to mind as you are reading the blog
-the best way for you to know when there has been an update is to set up an RSS feed. RSS stands for Really Simple syndication. With the appropriate reader running on your machine (see below for a list), you will automatically get the blog update in text form as soon as it is published. RSS feeds are. I'll provide some more detailed instructions if people don't know what this is.

Ok ... enough with this stuff ... lets get onto more interesting things. I'll get back to the music topic in an upcoming post as things evolve and side discussions evolve. This post is about methods for generating ideas or concepts for start-ups. I'm going to share some things that I do as well as some things I have read about that ring true. I would love to hear your ideas as well.

Focus on problems

Seems kinda obvious ... but it is extremely effective. For the music labels, there are many obvious problems ... peer to peer, self publishing (such as myspace) .... I could go on and on. For cell-phone operators, backhauling data traffic from cell towers is a huge problem. Its one thing to backhaul sporadic voice traffic .... what's going to happen when people start truly surfing and downloading content off the net from their phone or wireless PDA, especially if the content is streamed audio and video. Lots of people working on that one!

As Paul Graham puts it
"Let me repeat that recipe: finding the problem intolerable and feeling it must be possible to solve it. Simple as it seems, that's the recipe for a lot of startup ideas."

Tha's gotta spawn some ideas ... bring it on!

Make Luxuries Affordable

Think about things that are considered luxuries that most people would want if they were more affordable. These have often been things that were available to businesses and that made the transition to everyone else. On the consumer side, items need to cost no more than a few hundred $ and monthly subscription fees to start below $30. The list of historical examples is extremely long .... internet access, computers, printers, cell-phones ... What's next?

In my opinion, properly designed smartphones and pocket pcs are next. I've had a basic phone for a while that I could surf with but the small screen and the basic phone keypad made it basically useless. However, I recently picked up a Pocket PC made by UT Starcom with a sliding keyboard and a great screen as well as EVDO wireless (high speed access in Bell's territory) in addition to wifi. I'm now checking emails, looking up phone numbers and addresses on, getting live mapquest maps when I'm lost, posting on blogs, and will soon make free long distance skype calls as soon as I download the S/W. Oh ... and its also a phone with voice recognition. As you would expect, its not cheap. Fortunately, I slept with the boss and was able to get it approved (she's my wife). Trust me on this one, this type of device is going to take off when its below $200 and unlimited use falls below $40/month. Ahh ... wireless energy ... if only eh J.H.

As Paul Graham puts it

"Let me repeat that recipe: finding the problem intolerable and feeling it must be possible to solve it. Simple as it seems, that's the recipe for a lot of startup ideas."

Attack From Below

Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor explain in The Innovators Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution, two awesome books I strongly recommend, that many extremely powerful, well run, customer focused companies miss major opportunities and sometimes get wiped off the face of the earth by listening to their customer's requirements! A new technology is emerging but when the incumbent analyzes it, the performance may not be as good as the existing technology and possibly even cost more. Why would they consider it?

Here is a great example I pulled from a Deloite Touche paper entitled "The Hundred Year Storm, Wireless Disruption In Telecommunications". Apparently Alexander Graham Bell's invention entitled "Improvements in Telegraphy" got turned down by Western Union since the invention cost more than the telegraph and did not go as far. This would not meet their customer's needs who need to communicate across the country cheaply and they had no use for it. It turns out that the "improvement" referred to the device's ability to transmit voice over electrical wires instead of Morse code! This system is now commonly known as the phone. Nuff said!

Ok, so now, think about you basic telephone service? What has to happen to wireless services and products for you to drop your existing land line entirely. Landlines are dead but home lines are not. This is subtle nugget. More on this in the future.


It is always tempting to think about how to do things better and equate that with faster, more powerful, more features. Sometimes simplifying is the winning strategy. God help me if the laptop we gave grandma's goes down when she's in Florida. Yikes!

So, what technologies have gone overboard where a correction is imminent? In my opinion, the PC is close to the edge. The basic PC has way more features than it needs and often has way more processing power than necessary for most users who mostly surf the web and write emails. For that, you get a device that works great when you boot for the first time and gradually slows down over time for no apparent reason, crashes, catches colds forcing you to reformat the drive to get it back working properly. The answer may not be in simply slightly cheaper but technically limited computers ... PCs are generally cheap enough so the low end of the market is already served.

Portable, wireless devices is where it is at. Anyone with a Blackberry will likely attest that they spend more time with that device than their PC doing things they previously did on PCs. Except for some bugs and limitations that will get fixed, I would be fine with just my Pocket PC as long as I could plug into a keyboard and monitor once in a while. Some may see such portable wireless devices as "really complicated phones". I see them as "really simple PCs" that can also be used to call people.

Unfortunately, MS is a dominant player in mobile operating systems so my joy may be short lived.

Parallel Trends Sometimes Merge

I love this one because it is the most subtle and difficult to nail down. Basically, this about imagining some desirable thing, such as the ultimate music service I spoke about in my last post, and figuring out what individual independent items need to happen for that desirable thing to come to fruition. Another way to look at it is to observe some entirely independent trends and imagine what you could create once each trend reached a certain capability.

Confusing? Here is an example. People start trading individual songs on the net which then leads automatic systems like the original Napster. Entirely independent of this, battery technology is getting significantly smaller and better driven mostly by the cell phone market. Similarly, hard drives with decent capacity are becoming very small. The track pad is becoming a popular alternative to the mouse. Taking these entirely independent trends, and toss them in together, with a bit of apple sauce and out pops the IPOD.

So, what kinds of trends may come together in the future? Let me toss out some random ingredients and see what we can come up with.

  • wireless mobile data access bw hits 10Mbps everywhere
  • Voice over IP (VoIP) becomes ubiquitous ... TDM is gone
  • advertising is entirely targeted ... no more generic ads
  • everything goes mobile
  • FLASH memory chips hit 64G (a DVD full length movie takes ~ 5 Gbps)
  • windows continues to be a piece of crap ... trend is expected to continue
  • voice recognition is good enough to allow control of nearly everything
  • battery technology (fuel cell?) and charging systems (wireless power) is such that battery time and consumption is no longer an issue ... for all intents and purposes , you never have to plug in again
  • applications move to the net ... user devices are simply audio and video devices with communications

Oh .... and people expect all their entertainment to be free ... which is pretty well the way it was before cable and the internet when you used an antenna on your tv or radio ... ubiquitous wireless entertainment! How far we've come????

Take all of the above: look for real problems, attack from below, simplify, make luxury items affordable, look for parallel trends and merge them, toss in some pixie dust and some interesting things should pop up.

I could go on and on but I suspect I've lost most of you by now so I'll finish off here. Expect the next posting by Friday.


Allan Isfan

Entrepreneur with an Iron Ring


Blogger Tmac said...

Hey Allan,

Some fascinating ideas. Particularly around the next generation of music and advertising services. Lots of interesting discussion around DRM these days and the limitations imposed on the music you have downloaded and paid for - should be an interesting year coming up in this area. Keep posting. I am interested to see where you take this. Speaking of music, check out 2 years, they'll be huge.


8:56 PM


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