Table Selection and Startup Ideas

An under-appreciated fact about startups is that they are competitive markets.

What I mean by this, is that within startups, different industries have different competition dynamics - enterprise SaaS is typically less competitive than B2B SaaS, which is in turn usually less competitive than consumer social.

In poker, there is a mental model of table selection. Imagine you are the sixth best poker player in the world. If you decide to sit down at a table with the other five, you are expected to lose, and are the proverbial whale. Conversely, if you choose to play at any other table, you have a reasonably high expected return. This approach is standard in high stakes poker, (and particularly stark in heads-up).

Fundamentally, the startup idea search should be treated as the exact same - starting with deciding which table (or market) you are most likely to win in. The more competitive the market you decide to play in, the less likely you are to succeed. If all the best hackers have decided to enter the same market, it will be 10 times harder for you to win. Comparatively, if the only people playing in your market are boomers, you are far more likely to succeed.

Take the crypto boom, where 'all the smart people are going in crypto'. Many took this as a signal to also jump in. “All the smart people are doing it I should do it too, right?”. If anything, it’s a sign to stay away, lest you start competing the smartest people the planet for a fixed pool of rewards. Hundreds of exchanges were started, hundreds more failed. Choosing to play at this table is a negative EV play - there are better opportunities to go after.

If, during the crypto boom, you went after some boring B2B SaaS business, you were more likely to have a business that was alive today. Charlie Songhurst puts it well here - you want to find a business that is "highly boring and highly complex". It's another good layer to think about when searching through the the idea maze.

There are thousands of tables to pick from. Choose wisely.