The Key to Startups: Ignore Your Instincts


Unnatural. Counterintuitive. Weird.

These adjectives might not be commonly associated with startups, but Paul Graham uses all three to describe them — and all within the first three minutes of his presentation, “Before the Startup.”

Startups are so weird that if you follow your instincts, they will lead you astray,” Graham said.“If you remember nothing more than that, when you’re about to make a mistake, you can pause before making it.”

So how, then, does an ambitious entrepreneur grow a successful startup?

Graham offers a list of counterintuitive things to remember when embarking on a business venture. Watch the whole video below, or listen to more about a specific point using the following timestamps.

  1. Trust your instincts about people (4:08)

“This is one of those rare cases where it works to be self-indulgent,” he said. One of the big mistakes founders make is to not trust their instincts about people. Even if a potential employee is smart, he might not be a good fit for you.

  1. You don’t need expertise in startups to succeed in startups (5:24)

Rather, founders need expertise in their own users. Just take Mark Zuckerberg, who Graham described as a “complete noob at startups” — and he turned out alright.

  1. Starting a startup is when the gaming stops working (11:22)

Sucking up doesn’t work when there’s no one to suck up to; users won’t be tricked by clever presentations or false productivity.

“They’re like sharks. Sharks are too stupid to fool. You can’t wave a red flag and fool it; it’s like, meat or no meat,” he said.“You have to have what people want and you only prosper to the extent that you do.”

  1. Startups are all-consuming (14:28)

A startup might take years, a decade or the rest of the your life. Entrepreneurs should take the opportunity cost into account before diving in — and 20 years old is not the ideal age to go all-in.

There’s a lot to consider, and Graham warned that startups are, of course, “really hard.”

  1. You can’t tell if you’re up to the challenge (21:50)

If you’re absolutely terrified of starting a startup, Graham says, you probably shouldn’t do it — but other than that, the only way to know is to try.

  1. The way to get startup ideas is not by trying to think of startup ideas (24:20)

Consciously trying to think of ideas will result in bad yet plausible ideas, which will waste the time of everyone involved. Instead, spend your time learning powerful things and “turn your brain into the type that has startup ideas unconsciously.”
To learn more about how to do this, understand why you shouldn’t start a startup when you’re 20 and hear Graham’s answers to the audience’s questions (starting at 31:15), check out the full lecture in the video.


Image credit: CC by Dennis Skley

About the author: Kayla Missman

Kayla Missman has avidly read stories about entrepreneurship for years. Currently a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, she is majoring in journalism with a minor in integrated marketing communication. She hopes to one day begin a startup of her own.

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