Rianna Middleton

Startup Ideas Don’t Grow on Trees


All entrepreneurs have something in common: they’re creative, resilient and brave. They don’t take no for an answer. However, even the most successful ones had to work hard to find their perfect startup idea. Unfortunately, like money, startup ideas don’t grow on trees. 

Paul Graham, entrepreneur and venture capitalist, said it best:

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas.”

In his article, How to Get Startup Ideas, he emphasizes that the best startups come from problems that the founders actually experience in their own lives.

Take Airbnb for example. Co-founder Joe Gebbia simply noticed that all of San Francisco’s hotels were booked solid during a popular design conference, even before the registration was full. Uber co-founders Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick simply couldn’t catch a cab one night in Paris. Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried simply struggled to keep his web design business organized.

Therefore, it’s not just the entrepreneur and their special personality and drive that makes for a successful startup. It’s all about their idea, and how their idea helps solve the everyday problems of consumers and businesses.

Arguably, there’s not a single industry more in need of innovation than the media industry. While companies like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post are examples of successful media startups, I would argue that there is still work to be done in the innovation space. Newsrooms are shrinking, and journalists are struggling to keep their careers alive in a changing industry. It’s not enough to have a few cases of startup success — the entire industry needs to work together to evolve as a whole.

Clayton Christensen and David Skok have applied the theory of disruptive innovation, pioneered by Christensen, to the media industry. One of their most interesting ideas is the “jobs to be done” theory, which suggests that news companies should stop thinking about their products and services, and rather what job a consumer would hire them to do on a daily basis. Is it to be entertained during their lunch break? Is it to be informed on what a piece of breaking news means for the country? Is it to aggregate and personalize news from many outlets?

Christensen and Skok also pointed out that media companies could have side hustles of consulting, photography or design to help them make money for their main business. There are plenty of skills outside the traditional realm of journalism that can be applied to other industries to help solve problems.

The idea is as old as time, and scrappy entrepreneurs often begin their startups on the side of their full-time jobs, working on them late into the night or early in the morning before work. Yet, it’s hard to see The New York Times being anything but The New York Times. However, it’s a model that can work, at least until the next step toward innovation can be executed. Without a side gig, Airbnb may have never made it out of the incubation stage. On NPR’s How I Built This, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia revealed that the company paid off their extensive company credit card debt by selling limited edition Obama-O’s for $40 a box.

The extra revenue media companies can achieve through side hustles can help them fund their innovative ideas or even just get them into the mindset of solving problems for clients instead of delivering content to consumers. Who knows, maybe the next great media startup will be born out of the side hustle of a legacy organization like The New York Times. Either way, it’s not enough to simply put information out into the world. It’s time for media companies to put on their business hats and think about the problems that their organization solves.

2 thoughts on “Startup Ideas Don’t Grow on Trees

  1. It’s cool to think that anyone could think of the next big idea. We just have to be open to ideas and dedicated to solving life’s small problems. It’s not the drive that an entrepreneur has to create the next successful startup, it’s all about the problem-solving idea and the dedication and drive the entrepreneur has. Good read!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is definitely still work to be done in media innovation, and I’m glad you and so many other young journalists accept that and want to work toward figuring out what we should do to fix things. Even the successful media companies you mentioned like HuffPo and Buzzfeed recently laid off huge numbers of staff. It’s been really disheartening to me, and, I assume, lots of us here at MSU who are passionate about going into the industry.

    I like how you bring up the fact that legacy-media wasn’t always legacy media. Something media-consumers need to start accepting this that the same quality content can come out of Buzzfeed as the New York Times. Maybe what we need is a culture shift?

    Liked by 2 people

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