Saturday, June 8, 2019

Before rejecting any idea, ask- 'Can it turn out to be Altair BASIC?'

There's an incident narrated in the book- The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley's Most Exclusive School for Startups about Paul Graham (the founder of YCombinator) and his
peers assessing the start up applications for entry into the 2011 cohort. There was a team of founders that Paul found promising but he didn't find their idea promising. A line in the conversation that went between the panel of judges got me thinking. Before I share what I thought, here is the line:

"We're just not enthusiastic about the idea, appends Livingston.
"Well, it's Altair BASIC," repeats Graham. It's a starting point.

Basically, Jessica Livingston wasn't impressed with the idea but Paul defended by saying the words stated above. Paul used Altair BASIC as a metaphor for the starting point.

Altair BASIC was Microsoft's first product. As per Wikipedia:
Altair BASIC is a discontinued interpreter for the BASIC programming language that ran on the MITS Altair 8800 and subsequent S-100 bus computers. It was Microsoft's first product (as Micro-Soft), distributed by MITS under a contract. Altair BASIC was the start of the Microsoft BASIC product range.
It's developers were: Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Monte Davidoff

The reason I found this metaphor interesting was because Paul used it intelligently to defend the team that he believed in despite them having an unremarkable idea.

I think this story carries lessons both for the innovators and the judge of ideas.

If you are a judge...A profile of judge can be that of a venture capitalist judging whether to many an investment, or a panel selecting ideas for incubation or for a corporate innovation program or like. Judges tend to evaluate more often on the strength of an idea than on the potential of the team pitching it.

To me, what Paul did right was that he bet more on the team that bet the idea than the idea itself. Comparing the situation with Altair BASIC was his way of changing the frame of evaluation on what the team 'could' do rather than on what they had at present.

If you are an innovator...
The Altair BASIC metaphor has a meaning for the founders as well. More often we tend to reject the ideas based on instinct. Sometimes, the difference between a successful venture and not-so-successful ones is a matter of backing your team and the skills and asking this eloquent question:

Can it turn out to be Altair BASIC?

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