In the startup world, people often trot out the old adage that “ideas are a dime a dozen – success is all about execution.”

I think this is mostly true, but what about execution makes it hard? What is execution, anyway?

Sam Altman’s Startup Playbook has this to say about product:

Here is the secret to success: have a great product. This is the only thing all great companies have in common. If you do not build a product users love you will eventually fail. Yet founders always look for some other trick. Startups are the point in your life when tricks stop working.

I like to think of startups as, uhm, mining for magical vibrating gems? If you know a space well, you can sort of hear the faint vibrations of the gems. But once you find a gem, you need to amplify it by building a structure around it, and tuning your structure to resonate at its frequency. And some gems are more powerful than others and it’s hard to tell at the outset. And some gems require enormous amplification infrastructure, whereas others need very little.

I don’t think most people have the skillset to find, tune and amplify gems / product ideas appropriately, but it seems pretty teachable. Here are a list of skills that I think are related:

  • paying attention to things that seem like pain points for yourself and others. Noticing when you’re complaining about something not working right, and the mental motion to ask “how could this be improved?”
  • thinking from the “end state” – similar to the above, the mental motion to ask “if this problem were solved in some future society, what would that look like?”
  • reductionism & determinism: The world is deterministic and things happen for reasons. If you have this attitude, you can believe that it is possible to understand why things happen.
  • gears level thinking – given the reductionist attitude, actually executing on the mental motion to understand causal links in the world.
  • scale thinking – mental motion to ask “how would this work if it were 10 or 100 or 1000 times bigger?”
  • exponentials – quickly & intuitively evaluate exponential or logarithmic terms in your fermi estimates/mental math
  • social empathy – readily notice other people’s problems, and talk to them to deeply understand their lived experience
  • social resonance tuning – put your ideas in front of people who might need them, and get feedback on whether those people are resonating with the idea. Tune your idea to learn what aspects resonate more or less.
  • relentlessly truth-seeking – detach yourself emotionally from the current idea in order to tune it to resonate. Overcome status quo bias, confirmation bias, etc. to find the best possible version of an idea. The mental motion to always ask “how could we have done even better?”
  • leadership – Convince people to work on your idea with you, and stay happy and excited about the idea while doing so.

I’m looking to write more about developing these individual skills, if people are interested. Email me and let me know what you’re most interested in.