Think Different. Think Users.

This post is from my talk at Y Combinator's Aspiring Founders Forum.

There was a famous Apple ad campaign in the late 90s with the slogan "Think Different." This is something you’re going to have to do as a startup founder. It would be almost impossible to create a successful startup just by doing what everyone else has been doing.

It's hard to think differently, which is why it's so rarely done. There's a lot of social pressure not to. People will dismiss your idea or even ridicule it. At some point you'll probably have to fight this headwind. At some point you'll have to do something that seems stupid to most people.

So that's my first point — just that you should be prepared for this. It's something pretty much all successful startup founders have had to go through. It's hard for us to see now how much of a headwind they faced, because they've of course now proven that their ideas weren't stupid after all. But if you ask them, they can usually remember quite vividly the skepticism they faced in the early days.

I went through it myself. It's hard to imagine, now that Y Combinator has become such a well-known brand, but when we first started out, it seemed so lame. No one thought YC would matter. Our own lawyers tried to talk us out of it. 

Which leads me to my second point: when you have a crazy idea, how do you know whether or not to bet on it? Because most crazy ideas actually are bad. 

I think there's a second half that the Apple ad campaign left out. It's not enough just not to be guided by the conventional wisdom. You have to be guided by something else. And in a startup founder’s case that something else is users. For founders, that slogan should become "Think different. Think users."

I’m not saying that you should deliberately try to think of weird ideas, but rather that you should be willing to explore weird ideas in the process of making your users happy. If you have to choose between making users happy and the conventional wisdom, choose users. In fact if you have to choose between making users happy and almost anything, choose users.

That was how we knew we weren't wasting our time with YC. Everyone else thought it was a dumb idea, but founders loved it, and they were our users. We've always thought of founders as users, and that's one of the things that made YC different from other investors. 

Which leads me to my third point: making users happy isn't just a sign that you're on the right track. Making users happy will also give you the strength to fight the headwind of conventional opinion. And you're going to need help, because that headwind is strong. You can't be in denial about that.

What it should feel like in an early stage startup is that you're having a little party with your users, and it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks, because you're having such a great time. Except of course that that party has to be growing. It can be small, but it should be growing.

When you can find something that everyone else thinks is dumb but that a growing number of actual users love, this doesn’t just give you the strength to carry on, but is a sign that you could be onto something really big. That's my fourth point: the bigger the difference between conventional opinion of your idea and users' opinion of it, the more potential it probably has.

In finance, where I started my career, everyone knows that there's a strong relationship between risk and reward. And that applies to ideas too. The really great ones usually seem crazy at first. So crazy that no matter how independent-minded you were, you probably wouldn't think of them just by trying to think of ideas. You have to be led into them while chasing users.

So here are my four points about thinking differently. One, you'll need to be prepared to do it. Two, you shouldn't just do it gratuitously; you should do it in the course of serving users. Three, if you make those users happy, it will give you the strength to resist the force of convention. And four, the gap between users' view of you and the outside world's view of you is a sign of your potential.