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Will you be my co-founder? - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Will you be my co-founder? [Jan. 25th, 2008|02:32 am]
Arvind Narayanan

When I tell people I'm thinking about maybe doing a startup when I finish school, I brace for the inevitable response: "Oh, got any ideas?"

You can't blame them. That's how the media has taught us to think about successful tech startup companies: a reclusive nerd suddenly hits upon a million dollar idea and turns it into cash virtually overnight. Rags to riches, a heart-warming story. It's heart-warming because it makes you think it could happen to you.

Forget startups—the reason that fictitious stories like the Newton-apple-head tale are common knowledge is because most people prefer to think that the law of universal gravitation was discovered by a lucky fluke rather than being something that required a keen intellect, deep understanding and decades of work and dedication.

But I digress. The reality of startups is quite the opposite of the popular perception: ideas are in extreme overabundance; every entrepreneur worth the name can throw out dozens, a few good, most crappy. Unfortunately, no one knows which ones are good until you start to execute on them, which is where the bottleneck is. It typically takes three years or so of working 90 hour weeks to find out if your idea is good or not. Ideas are not even really inherently good or bad, it's mostly your execution that makes them so. If you succeed, you get to change the world; if not, I'm told, it feels like someone is murdering your baby in front of your eyes.

It was Howard Aiken who said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.Y combinator has been funding startups simply based on the founders' abilities, based on the theory that the initial idea is worthless as a predictor of success probability. In fact, most startups apparently end up executing on a completely different idea than what they started out with.

There are a couple of things I should mention. First, founders are indeed (occasionally) afraid of VCs stealing their ideas. That's because when you're pitching it to a VC, an idea is far more than just an idea. Imagine you're Sabeer Bhatia: you aren't going to say, "we're going to do web-based email, and you should give us half a million dollars." You've done the usability testing, you've worked out how the servers are going to scale, you've figured out a revenue model and you've already invented the technique that will be taught in startup school as the classic example of viral marketing on the web. That's a whole different beast.

Second, although ideas don't matter, it's important to have a set of areas of interest/expertise to focus on. And you want to make an educated guess on how the technology/business in your areas is going to evolve; there could be a variety of different ideas that exploit this guess. For instance, if you'd started out a year or two ago with the bet that music DRM was going to collapse (although no one was making such a prediction), and you'd developed some kind of novel revenue model around non-DRM'd music online, the major players would probably be stepping on each other's feet to acquire you.

Finally, I get to the point of this post. I'm looking for a startup co-founder, and I figured I'd do better by expanding my search online. If you too are looking for a co-founder, get in touch with me. Your location doesn't matter; let's talk and try to find out if we each have the smarts, the skills and the drive that are needed in this crazy endeavor, and to try to find common areas of interest. If that goes well, then we can start to bounce ideas around :)

[User Picture]From: rfc9000
2008-01-24 10:57 pm (UTC)
Until about a year back, I was very serious about floating a startup and was bouncing ideas around with a bunch of interested friends. It took me a while to realize, but I finally realized that getting good ideas to work on is not that tough, but what was tough for me was to devote time to working on implementing that idea (because most ideas I hit on were totally disconnected to my PhD research topic, and I suck at multi-tasking!). And then I decided to just forget about it and concentrate on my PhD research topic.

Are you on the verge of graduating? If not, are you ready to quit your PhD to work on your idea fulltime? It would be very interesting to know what your approach towards balancing your time between working on the startup and your other work is.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-25 05:08 am (UTC)
i'm sitting pretty in terms of my phd, if i may say so. i have 3 well known papers, and several complete/near-complete drafts that together should be enough. of course if i wanted to apply for a top 10 academic job i'd have to work much harder, but if i'm not looking at a research career, working half-time on my phd should be easily sufficient to do a pretty good job in the 1.5 years or so that i have left.

i'm not great at multi-tasking, but i don't suck at it either. i tend to devote a few days or a week to one problem and then switch to another. in fact i've been multitasking research with hobby-coding for several months now.
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[User Picture]From: mmk
2008-01-24 11:18 pm (UTC)

Strongly recommend reading


from library or otherwise.

(full disclosure: I took his course last sem, extremely useful)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-25 05:08 am (UTC)

Re: Strongly recommend reading

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[User Picture]From: dandydand
2008-01-26 03:20 am (UTC)
Keep us posted! At some point, I may be interested in working on a turn-based game server (due to my obsession with board games, esp. chess) or something similarly cool.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-28 09:15 pm (UTC)

1. do you have a website of some sort? your journal doesn't tell me much about you.

2a. i used to do this a long long time ago (when i wasn't so great at coding :-)

2b. have you taken a look at the competition in this space lately? it's pretty heavy.

2c. are you thinking of writing a server just for fun or do you have an idea what you want the front end would look like, what's the revenue model and that sort of thing?
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[User Picture]From: dandydand
2008-02-04 06:53 pm (UTC)
1. Hmm, I don't have a web site, but I do have a facebook account. I used to have a web site (and I used to blog a lot more, and my profile used to be much more informative) but my parents would constantly comment on it and wouldn't give me any peace and quiet.

2a. Oh, you're the Arvind that did the GTKBoard project? I thought it was an interesting idea, but the code seemed unmaintainable and although I really wanted to contribute, I was having serious computer hardware failures and had to reinstall OSs every week or so. Really cool idea, though, and the new release is kinda fun too! :-)

2b. True, there's a lot of competition (e.g. Yahoo, Pogo, ICC, PlayChess, and others). I was imagining something similar to (but certainly not the same as) the old US Chess Live server. I'm aware that their business model didn't work for them, but they had some good ideas as far as the actual service went.

2c1. I have a few (very different) ideas for the front end that share some common characteristics (that distinguish it from the competition).

2c2. I would imagine interface-embedded (not pop-up) advertisements being the major source of revenue and a nominal fee, if necessary (but hopefully not). I'd hope that an entirely ad-based model would attract more users and would also be feasible from the business side of things.

Anyway, I know at this stage it's just an idea and even as an idea it's hardly complete, but feel free to bounce some ideas back and forth, and keep us posted if you've got other cool ideas too!
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From: antrix.net
2008-01-29 06:50 am (UTC)
Perhaps a (private) mailing list of folks interested in bouncing ideas and meeting prospective co-founders is in order?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-29 03:27 pm (UTC)
interesting idea.

now that i think about it, i'm sure such a thing must already exist (especially for the silicon valley clique, where there is already a strong social network of entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs.)

i searched on ning for 'entrepreneurs' and found dozens of communities that have been started but none showing significant activity. i'll keep looking.

btw, i think i've seen you around at iitm. small world.
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From: antrix.net
2008-01-29 06:58 pm (UTC)
Oh! I haven't seen (and now after searching .. haven't found) your bio.. you were at iitm? which batch? is there a photo of yours somewhere for easy recall? :)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-29 07:09 pm (UTC)
graduated in 04, cs dual degree


i don't know if the pic will help much though, cuz i looked a little different back then
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