Where Startup Ideas Come From

I’ve been pondering an idea for the past few days that I think is viable, that I have the skills to launch, and the resources to support.  The current name is “Geek Runway”.  The core focus would be connecting new and wannabe tech professionals to opportunities to gain hands on experience.  I’m still fleshing the design out, but that’s not what I’m really talking about in this post.  I want to talk about where startup ideas come from.

I run into a huge number of talented people that could launch a venture, but they just don’t seem to grasp how to find an idea to put their effort behind.  There’s a feeling that ideas come on the wings of storks, or little gnomes leave notes on your pillow in the middle of the night. You can see it in n00bs eyes of how they feel that ideas are the incarnation of some type or primitive magic.  This of course has nothing to do with reality.  Ideas for startups come from the same place all ideas come from.

The first thing I should mention when it comes to ideas is that you shouldn’t marry one until you know you want to live with it a long time.  In the startup world there is a phrase, “Fail fast.”  What this means is that 9 out of 10 of your ideas just won’t work.  Maybe there are regulations in the industry you didn’t know about.  Maybe there’s already a dominate company and the leftover scraps are not worth much. Maybe the price point people are willing to pay is below what it costs you to deliver.  And more often than not… you have a better idea, for a better price point, with far superior reliability, but…. BUT… people are fine with what they’ve got… “ooohhh… yeah… we’re fine thank you.” So with ideas one of the most important lessons is to kill failing ones before they’ve drained you of all of your resources.

Past that you simply look to the world to give you inspiration. The ideas for Geek Runway comes from a one on one random conversation that mirrored countless others that I’ve had.  I was at the local mall to buy a sweater for working out, and as I was walking down the stairs when I heard a, “Mr Eli!”. This is the point of the story where I should say I turned around with a big smile to greet a fan.  Truth be told I put my head down and walked faster. (You don’t pay me to sugar coat things).  The person caught up to me after a few feet and repeated, “MR ELI!”, and so at that point I put on a smile and turned to see what was going to happen next.

The guy seemed nice enough, though a little too enthused to meet me.  I did the normal, “hello” thing, and then he launched into how he needed me as his mentor.  He was so ever emphatic about how he felt that if I mentored him that it would change his life.  He has his A+ and whatever the hell the Strata certification is.  He was well spoken, looked well put together, but sadly is an African American in the heart of the Baltimore City ghetto with no car. Unfortunately where he’s at in Baltimore is one of those areas basically left to the wolves.  Other lower end areas have a lot of revitalization going on, but his is not one of them.

I just sat there taking it all in.  Smiling like a moron, I pondered how to tell this nice, motivated, enthusiastic, guy he’s kinda fucked. There is such a large gap between “empowerment” and jobs.  He’s gotten training. Maybe not the best of training, but he does have at least a couple of certifications.  That should be enough to land something, but it’s not.  He thinks mentorship is the answer, but it’s not.  Mentorship has taken on an air of magic.  People think that they will be taken under someones wing and then amazing things happen.  The truth is mentors give a few sentences of real advice, and then it’s up to the mentee to make heads or tails of it. Mentors are like the characters in video games that give you quests.  They spit out a paragraph or two of dialogue and then you spend the next day or week trying to recover the Ruby of Coolness or what not. When you’ve done that you come back for another paragraph of dialogue that half the time doesn’t make a darn bit of sense. So his request for mentorship is well intentioned, but simply misguided.

I gave him the only advice that I could give.  Put on his walking shoes and walk to every tech meetup on the calendar.  It’s gonna suck, but those meetups are where the people with jobs are at.  He asked for mentorship, and after a fashion he got it.

I walked away from that encounter displeased.  Having been in the industry so long I see the holes.  If you track just ever so perfectly down the route the business owners, politicians, and tech leaders want your road is paved with gold, and there are ice cream stands every 50 feet.  If you stray one damn foot off of the path it’s a dog eat dog world.

I will always remember a conversation I had with a non profit CEO in the city.  Their non profit trained inner city kids in a modern and valuable skill set.  They would have the kids for up to 4 years, and the kids would do some very impressive things.  But… but… the CEO shook their head and lamented that once the kids turned 18 the only jobs that were available were at the Royal Farms (Our version of 7/11).  I still remember my smile hardening as I looked at this CEO shake their head at the injustice, as I mentally screamed, “YOU HAVE THESE KIDS FOR FOUR YEARS AND YOU ALLOCATE ZERO RESOURCES TO PUT THEM ON A BETTER TRACK THAN ROYAL FARMS!!! How… how… how very evil are you?”

To be clear in my eyes this is evil.  You take disadvantaged people.  You pay for them to get training and skills.  You show them the world beyond their neighborhood.  Then when it matters most you give them a gold star, and a shove out the door.  They spend so much to show these people what’s possible, but then won’t spend the money to bridge the 10 foot gap between here and there. “If you were depressed about your life before, let’s really show you what you’re missing out on.”

So I walk and I think about that guy.  What are bridges that need to be crossed for success?  Education has basically been dealt with.  Whether it’s SAM’s in 24 Hours books, Pluralsight, CBT Nuggets, or non profit bootcamps education is now both plentiful and rather inexpensive. (To be clear I have all the sympathy in the world is someone can’t afford a $5,000 bootcamp.  If on the other hand they can’t spend $30 a month on Pluralsight they have bigger issues).  I know the jobs exist.  To be clear the industry isn’t what it was, but it also means there are a lot of opportunities that exist now that didn’t before. There may be no money in swapping hard drives, but selling datacom services pays the bills very nicely.

If you have jobs, you have education, and you have good people, where’s the problem?  There’s obviously a problem here. The problem is how you get good, trained people into the jobs.  In the tech world that’s all about experience.  Paper MCSE’s used to be a real thing, but in 2017 who’s going to hire an MCSE for an MCSE job with no experience?

Then the question becomes what are the resources for gaining experience? The problem with n00bs is that they generally cost companies more that they are worth.  When I had my company I learned the had way that “unpaid” interns were too darn expensive.  There’s so much time spent getting them up to speed. Then some of them don’t show up when they say they will. Part of what you pay for in an employee is that they show up on time…

The thing is… Baltimore City is kinda a crap hole… The city is poor.  The politicians LITERALLY have tried stoking the economy by getting residence to create non profits. (In the zip code of my old business we had 200 registered non profits alone.) Entrepreneurship actually flourishes in many ways, but it’s very much of the duct tape and pray variety. There’s a huge amount of need for tech services, but not the corresponding budgets.

So you have good people, that have skills that are useful, all around a city falling in on itself..?

Startup founders are the new alchemists.  In the days of yore alchemists would try to turn lead into gold.  Founders have simply tweaked the concept and now turn castoffs into stock options.

So I think… If I can create a Meetup type event. I can reach out and bring in n00bs that need experience on the one hand.  Then go to the non profits and entrepreneurs on the other.  Bring them together to mingle.  That might just be a hell of a bridge.  N00bs can fix up computer labs that have gone to pot, non profits can start allowing people to use tier labs again. Once the n00bs have experience and confidence it’s far easier to get a real job, and being that the Baltimore community is surprisingly tight knit if you do well your name will be passed on.

Where does the money come from?  Maybe a non profit, maybe just through selling sponsorships.  If you have a pile of entrepreneurs and non profits in a room that need services, and you have a pile of n00bs who will be installing services for the next 20 years there’s money there.

And so that’s the birth of an idea.  Will I actually do it?  Not sure… Will I be able to get n00bs and organization leaders to show up?  Not sure… Will I not have the impulse to want to choke every single person in the room?  I can’t tell you that…

Those questions will be answered during the Grind.  The idea phase is simply finding a problem.  Deciding how you would go about solving the problem.  Asking whether you can get enough support for what you need.  Then trying to determine whether or not you believe the revenue, and profit potential would be enough to bother.

The Grind will be about building workflows.  Then you’ll build out your infrastructure.  You’ll figure out the best way of delivering the services, and so on.

So that’s all there is to it.  To be clear why I hesitate now. Why I’m not rushing head long into this is because the Grind will be the real life of the startup.  Day in and day out contacting people, booking meetup space, cajoling both n00bs and business people to leave their homes on cold winter nights.  Smiling for hours on end regardless of what I really think about the people talking to me at the moment.  The Grind is the business.  The Grind is the life. The Idea is well thought out fantasy that exists for approximately 10 seconds after you start putting it into action.


  1. Nice piece, Eli. I do like the Value-added re-seller business model of selling IT Products and Services and also for Financial advising something I feel all IT people need a better understanding of since most do not understand finance enough these days.

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