Paul Graham’s Six Principles for Making New Things

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

This article compares Paul Graham’s “Six Principles for Making New Things” with Bob Bemer’s “Do Something Small But Useful Now”,  Gary Hamel’s Innovation Hacker, and Peter Drucker’s list of seven places to search systematically for opportunities.

Key paragraph (slightly formatted) from Paul Graham’s “Six Principles for Making New Things

Here it is: I like to find
(a) simple solutions
(b) to overlooked problems
(c) that actually need to be solved, and
(d) deliver them as informally as possible,
(e) starting with a very crude version 1,
(f) then iterating rapidly.

It reminds me of Bob Bemer‘s “Do Something Small But Useful Now

  • Do Something
  • Do Something Small
  • Do Something Small But Useful
  • Do Something Small But Useful Now

But it’s a delightfully succinct encapsulation of entrepreneurial strategy. Graham believes that

This technique is successful (in the long term) because it gives you all the advantages other people forgo by trying to seem legit.

But I think it’s also because it’s not what big companies do (and startups trying to act like big companies). Big companies can make long range plans, marshal resources for distant markets, and (sometimes) successfully complete the journey. Entrepreneurs mix ends and means, looking at the “adjacent possible” to convert a quickly achievable result into the means for a new closely adjacent target, incorporating ongoing customer feedback into interim course corrections. Hence the need for quick informal solutions that are iterated rapidly.

Graham outlines his reasons a little later in the essay which I have re-factored into the original list and adding some links

  1. simple solutions simple solutions are better (though they don’t seem as impressive as complex ones).
  2. to overlooked problems you’re more likely to discover new things, because you have less competition.
  3. that actually need to be solved [Graham offers no further elaboration on this, but it seems clear that people will only use and pay for solutions that are actually needed]
  4. deliver them as informally as possible saving all the effort you would have had to expend to make them look impressive and avoiding the danger of fooling yourself as well as your audience.
  5. starting with a very crude version 1 so you start learning from users what you should have been making
  6. iterating rapidly your solution can benefit from the imagination of nature, which, as Feynman pointed out, is more powerful than your own.

Postscript Feb 17: There has been an active discussion thread on Hacker News. One comment by Christopher Golda offered an excellent snippet from “Innovation Hacker” a Jan 4 blog post by Gary Hamel that nicely elaborates on step (b) and offers four normally unnoticed items to pay close attention to.

Successful innovators have ways of seeing the world that throw new opportunities into sharp relief. They have developed, usually by accident, a set of perceptual “lenses” that allow them to pierce the fog of “what is” in order to see the promise of “what could be.” How? By paying close attention to four things that usually go unnoticed:

  1. Unchallenged orthodoxies—the widely held industry beliefs that blind incumbents to new opportunities.
  2. Underleveraged competencies—the “invisible” assets and competencies, locked up in moribund businesses, that can be repurposed as new growth platforms.
  3. Underappreciated trends—the nascent discontinuities that can be harnessed to reinvigorate old business models and create new ones.
  4. Unarticulated needs—the frustrations and inconveniences that customers take for granted, and industry stalwarts have thus far failed to address.

This is a great list and nicely expands “(b) overlooked problems.” In his book “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” Peter Drucker offered the following observation on the frame of mind need to spot opportunities for innovation.

“Innovation requires us to systematically identify changes that have already occurred but whose full effects have not yet been felt, and then to look at them as opportunities. It also requires existing companies to abandon rather than defend yesterday.”

Drucker goes on to suggest seven places to search systematically for opportunities

  • The Unexpected
  • The Incongruous
  • Weak Link In Existing Process
  • Industry Or Market Structure Change
  • Demographics: Size, Age Structure
  • New Zeitgeist: Perception, Mood, Meaning
  • New Knowledge

Time saving tip: software hackers reading Hamel’s full post will be disappointed to learn that the “Hacker” in the title is an allusion to the game of golf. An innovation hacker is ineffective in the same way that a golf hacker is a poor player. The excerpt I quote is all of the useful residue once a series of golf anecdotes are removed.

Two earlier posts on Drucker, innovation, and how to look for opportunities.

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