Startup Ideas

When's the best time to start a startup?

This lesson explains how to find startup ideas by studying market timing. My focus is big, venture-backable ideas, but the advice applies broadly.

There’s an important question that founders of $1B+ startups can answer: What recently changed about the world that made your startup newly scalable?

They should tell you that something changed in one of these five market forces: technology, consumer behavior, environment, regulation, or distribution channels.

The CEO of ($4.5B+) phrased it like this:

“We bet on five megatrends that would shift the power to cloud… faster internet, cheaper compute and storage, mobile, and better browsers. Even so, we underestimated the scale of each tailwind. Always bet on the megatrends.” —Aaron Levie

Changes in market forces generate new startup opportunities because they create market pull by introducing a scenario of new demand and low supply (no startups exist here yet), which makes customer acquisition cheap and easily scalable. Early adopters pay attention first then the masses follow suit if they like what they see.

When market pull truly appears, founders who leverage it first are likelier to win. I think of it like this: With 8 billion people on the planet, every decent startup idea is repeatedly fundraised for every 1-3 years until someone finally gets it to work. Whoever succeeds is whoever attempted it when market pull finally emerged.

This is why I believe that most big startups are started within three years of their ideas becoming scalable. Therefore, to say that you have bad market timing is to say that you launched before market pull existed.

Entrepreneur Bill Gross noted that Airbnb's timing was critical to beating all who came before them:

"[Airbnb was] famously passed on by many smart investors because people thought: No one’s going to rent out a space in their home to a stranger... But one of the reasons it succeeded, aside from a good business model, a good idea, great execution, is the timing. [The 2009 recession was a time] when people really needed extra money, and that maybe helped people overcome their objection to rent out their own home to a stranger."

This lesson shows you how to be the founder in those first 1-3 years—by studying market changes to find ideas of your own. While there are many ways to source ideas, I believe this approach identifies those most likely to succeed.

Examples of new market pull

Let's start with how Uber benefited from multiple market changes at once:

  1. Uber captured technology change: Smartphones became ubiquitous. These did not widely exist before.
  2. Uber captured additional technology change: GPS became sufficiently inexpensive and power-efficient to be embedded in smartphones. This capability did not exist before.
  3. Uber captured consumer behavioral change: Facebook, eHarmony, Match, and Airbnb made consumers increasingly comfortable with meeting and trusting Internet strangers in person. If you grew up before this behavioral change, you know a time when meeting strangers from the Internet was like taking candy from a stranger’s van, which your mother told you not to do.

This reveals a lesson about market timing: You’ll often need consumer behavior to shift in tandem with technological or regulatory changes in order for market pull to occur.

For example, just because we have the technology to remove alcohol from wine without worsening its taste, do enough consumers actually care about the benefits of alcohol reduction to purchase alcohol-free wine? They didn’t 40 years ago, but today many do, and so the market timing is right.

To intuit which changes in consumer behavior are necessary, you must inhabit the mind of your customer and build products you yourself would want. Then you survey others to ensure you're not alone.

List of examples

Many factors affect a startup's timing, but let's oversimplify them to study clear examples:

Regulation changes

Legalization of marijuana:

SEC Regulation Crowdfunding:

Insurance companies covering the cost of new therapies:

A patent expires:

Consumer behavior changes

COVID causes us to work from home:

Desire for increased security and privacy:

Smoking cigarettes goes out of style:

Technology changes

Higher-capacity batteries:

Distribution channels

New ad channels are released:

New discovery channels are released:

The impact of changes

In all the above cases, changes in market forces may result in sudden market pull:

How to find ideas at the right time

To find startup ideas, become your customer then monitor for changes in technology, consumer behavior, environment, regulation, and distribution channels. Stay on top of the field: consume blogs, tweets, podcasts, legislation, and research. Talk to experts and consumers.

Whenever you learn of a big market force change, ask: What type of business does this newly make possible?

You’re looking for two types of opportunities:

When these become true, market pull may exist now or in the near future. Move fast to validate it.

Sometimes, your product experience will be significantly better than the status quo, thus creating the potential for market pull, but your implementation will be unorthodox and it will deter people. For example, Uber was initially unorthodox: we all grew up with our parents telling us not to get into cars with strangers, and we’re used to trusting licensed taxi drivers who know the streets.

But, Uber’s improvements in time-to-arrival, cost per trip, and citywide coverage made it so much better than taxis that when someone gave it a try, they didn't return to taxis. This reveals an insight about consumer preferences: if your product is far better than the status quo, consumers can eventually overcome their unjustified fear of your unorthodoxy once they’ve experienced the product.

This is why Instacart and Uber could offer free trips, free delivery, and free food in their early days: they endured an upfront loss to get you to try something strange so that the unfamiliar becomes familiar—because they know you'll then be addicted to the ROI.

If your market pull is hidden behind unorthodoxy, let people try the product and trust in the market pull.

From an investor's perspective

One of the biggest reasons investors pass on your startup is a concern that you’re too early or too late to your market. You’ve either (1) arrived before market pull exists or (2) after formidable competition has saturated scalable growth opportunities.

For most investors I co-invest with, the market matters more than everything else, with founder quality being a close second. (This is from the perspective of making a big, venture-backable company.)

So, here's the takeaway from this lesson: If your startup idea has been possible for a long time yet no one's made it work, you likely need a market change for the idea to become scalable.

In contrast, naive founders tend to think that the failed founders before them were less talented or lacked insights they have. This is unlikely. Instead, those founders were probably too early to their market. Consider how PayPal, eBay, and Instacart were obvious ideas that had been tried many times before—but the technical, behavioral, and financial conditions weren’t previously supportive. (,,, and died before them.)

If investors do believe that your market timing is right, often their next concern will be whether your go-to-market strategy is viable. Meaning, do they believe you can cost-effectively acquire customers? That’s what the next lesson covers: how to scale customer acquisition via product-led acquisition.

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Who's Julian Shapiro?

I spend thousands of hours deconstructing how things work. I compile my insights into free handbooks like the one you're reading. Over a million people read them annually. Insights that don't make it in are shared on Twitter.

Outside of writing, I invest in startups through my seed fund and Carveout. Previously, I coded the world's most popular web animation engine, Velocity.js, and I founded Demand Curve, the largest educator in startup marketing. More here.

Next — Acquiring customers

Learn the best strategies for rapidly acquiring customers.