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Make something people hate

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"Make something people want" is the first rule Paul Graham and other leaders of the startup community will tell you.

But they're wrong. Or rather, what they say is incomplete.

Startups have a basic function: take technical skills and make something highly-scalable that people want. This much is true. But there's both a supply side of this equation and a demand side. Too often we only look at the demand side.

Put differently: want to make an iPhone app? Good luck. There are tens of thousands of developers out there chasing tens of millions of users. Yes, there is high demand. But there is also high supply, so playing the iPhone app game is going to be a lot like playing the lottery. It's very doable, but the numbers? Ouch.

iPad apps? Same deal, only both the supply and demand is not as high. Android tablet apps? Much better in terms of supply (not so many developers) and a promising potential on the demand side too.

You see, you can't just take into account what people want, you also have to take into account who's doing what. If lots of people are already trying to make something that people want, you're going to be part of a crowd. You want some competition, but you don't want ten thousand other hungry developers, trust me.

So the real judgment involves looking at both the supply and demand side of the equation, not just the demand. And its a complex choice. In fact, if you want to have a little semantic fun, you could even take it to the opposite extreme: the more developers hate it, the better chance you have of making money there. If you only had one customer (who was a millionaire), but he really, really wanted the product, and nobody else wanted to develop it? That can be a nice spot to be in.

Of course there are moral considerations, just like any startup. I know a guy who was a former YC applicant. He went from zero to over 100K a month in just a year or so. How did he do it? He does targeted affiliate marketing. You can call that a spammer, but things are a lot more complicated than simple emails now. These guys write bots, use social engineering, and all sorts of other tricks -- all to get users to click a link.

Would I do that? Not at all. Do most developers approve of that kind of thing? Probably not. This is the main reason he's making so much money if you ask me: he's highly automating a system that most developers despise. Once everybody gets into the game, defense systems spring up, competition increases, users get smarter -- and it's not the same any more.

But you make a dreadful mistake if you think that stuff developers don't like is automatically evil. Another example: about a two years ago I ran across a startup idea online. Nothing spectacular, but it was really, really boring. But I figured what the hell? I've tried everything else. Might as well try this too.

So I pitched the idea at a few buddies I met on HN.

What was the response?

Yeah Daniel, this might work, but damn! It sounds dreadfully boring. Nothing bad or immoral about it, just mind-numbingly dull. By the time you do all this stuff? Geesh! Looks like, I dunno, work or something! Shouldn't we be creating the next neuro-linguistic self-curating automatron? Shouldn't we be doing something important? Shouldn't we be making a difference in the world! Let's go chase a cool idea!

But like a dummy, I went ahead and tried it out.

Thousands of dollars in profit later, doesn't feel so stupid any more. (Still feels pretty boring, though.)

But developers didn't like it, so they didn't develop it. Good. More market for me.

Want to make money? Make something people hate. At least something developers hate. Lots more room for growth there.

Interested in hacking and the startup community? Learn like I did -- from books. I took a couple of weeks and built a small website called Hacker Books. It's based on what hackers recommend to each other about building your own business, hn-books

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on November 9, 2010 10:37 AM.

Good and Evil in the Garden of Hackerdom was the previous entry in this blog.

To code quickly, you must quit coding is the next entry in this blog.

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Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
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