Raising money for revolutionary startup ideas

Between the work we do at Swoop and some big idea startups I’m advising, revolutionary innovation has been top of mind for me recently. That is why the following statement Richard Feynman makes in a lecture about the difficulty of understanding quantum mechanics stuck a deep chord:

So, it will be difficult but the difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from you saying to yourself “but how can it be like that” which really is a reflection of an uncontrolled–but I say utterly vain–desire to see it [quantum mechanics] in terms of some analogy with something familiar. I will not describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar. I will simply describe it.
— Richard Feynman

Revolutionary innovation often faces substantially bigger challenges than evolutionary innovation not because of the magnitude of change it requires in a real sense but because of the magnitude of psychological change required to accept the possibility of a new reality before it has fully manifested itself.  Startups building revolutionary new products and services face the additional challenge of having to convince investors about the possibility of a new reality before they can set out to create it. The typical approach is to draw on analogies to existing solutions, to the current reality. Compare. Contrast. Educate. This sometimes works but, in my experience, it often confuses investors more than enlightens them. Explaining the future in terms of the past works well for small evolutionary steps but if often fails for big discontinuous leaps. What analogy can you draw between a sailboat and steam ship? Between a propeller and a paddlewheel? A hot air balloon and an airplane? A feature phone and the iPhone?

Rather than highlighting the potential of the future, analogies to the past constrain it. Worse, in the minds of investors, these comparisons can set up the wrong benchmarks to evaluate a startup’s progress by, which can hurt the company in later financings. Sometimes, the best strategy is to just tell it like it is and only engage deeply with investors who “get it”, who are willing to suspend their disbelief and imagine a world where the revolutionary innovation has reached critical scale.

Here is Feynman. The quote is at 7:10.

About Simeon Simeonov

I'm an entrepreneur, hacker, angel investor and reformed VC. I am currently Founder & CTO of Swoop, a search advertising platform. Through FastIgnite I invest in and work with a few great startups to get more done with less. Learn more, follow @simeons on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn.
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14 Responses to Raising money for revolutionary startup ideas

  1. Emil Sotirov says:

    Incredible timing of this post (for me personally). Just this morning I woke up with my mind producing at least five different ways to explain/justify an idea that came to me about six months ago. The idea came as a vision of a simple single web interface for a new web service. And since then, I catch myself constantly trying to find the analogies, reasons, and comparisons that would somehow explain why that new service would make sense.

    And exactly as you say, I have the feeling that the only investor that would make sense to me would be someone who “gets” the thing from taking a look at that single interface (without much explanations).

  2. Revolutionary ideas can make people angry – they don’t want to believe that the mode or structure of the world will not continue with continuity. Even investors (whose jobs are hypothetically forward looking) and entrepreneurs (whose natural bias is forward looking) can be resistant!

    • Investors have a tough job. If they believed everything entrepreneurs said about the future they’d invest in almost every company they saw. Investors have to balance their own beliefs about the future with how much of what an entrepreneur says they are willing to trust.

  3. How many times you’ve been asked: “You are like Instagram, right?” or “Are you building a Twitter on steroids?” 🙂 )) Or whatever happened to be the poor guy’s idea of analogy (and boundary of imagination).

    I loved revisiting Feynman, especially in video format. Way back in a previous life I prepared for physics exams not from my professor’s textbook or lecture notes (I hadn’t sat through lectures, had a life) but from the famous Feynman collection of lectures. They were recognised more in the USSR than in blindly politicised Bulgarian science and education (‘everything American must be bad’, was the rule) – so I bought the books in Russian and got 5-s (out of 6, thank you very much), with the professor’s only remark being ‘I can’t remember seeing you in the lecture room?..’

    Fine memories from a fine man (no pun intended). Thanks for reminding us.

    And, of course – you can’t disrupt anything with a ‘better mouse trap’, or by building things that are bigger / faster / greener (or more purple with more orange polka-dots). It has to be a ‘mouse evaporator’ or a ‘mouse to cucumber converter’ or something I can’t even imagine as I write. The good news is, there are enough imaginative and creative people coming up with no-analogy ideas. The problem remains with the ‘analysts’ and media – who fail in their responsibility to guide the masses into the right thinking. I’d rather leave them with their problem and focus on the innovation at hand 🙂

  4. Pingback: B&W » Weekly Startup Links: ‘Making Yourself a CEO’ and more

  5. HumbleEntreprenuer says:

    OK – I’m a big physics guy, so this Feynman quote drew me in. However, I have been watching your resume of companies (esp. those with Silicon Valley domicile) for many years (since 2007). I am sorry, but I am failing to see traction or merit for these so called ‘revolutionary’ ideas. Plinky, Thing Labs, DubLabs, 8th Ring, etc. while many of these are interesting ideas, few have been unique or revolutionary and all have – well I will be nice and avoid the “f” word, but let’s say they aren’t generating value, investor ROI or revolution as promised – if they still exist. While the explanation in your post here is a plausible reason for their challenged life (summed up – ‘investors just can’t fathom the founder’s brilliance’), I wonder if a more pragmatic answer, and dare say honest one, would be that they were just bad ideas or poorly executed (or both). The teams behind these companies are talented, but equal/better talent and revolutionary thinking can be found as easily. Having Google pedigree doesn’t necessarily confer entrepreneurial success or superiority. Investors know ideas are cheap. Everything has been thought of twice over. Executing to solve problems is talent worth investing in.

    • Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. You are absolutely right that without execution everything is just talk. I’d never claim otherwise. I also wholeheartedly agree that entrepreneurial success is not determined by someone’s previous employer, though I’m not sure how this is relevant to the post.

      However, you are off-base in two areas with respect to the companies you listed: (1) assuming that these are the companies I wrote the post about and (2) making rather incorrect assumptions about their current revenues or exit valuation.

      This post isn’t about investors not being able to “fathom the founder’s brilliance”. It is simply about a technique entrepreneurs could use to efficiently qualify investors early as opposed to spend time in several meetings just to hear a late/slow “no”.

  6. Sean says:

    Great strategy Simeon. I haven’t been involved in a revolutionary startup because I am still neck deep in the evolutionary apps. But I will definitely keep your technique in mind for the future when I dream up that “how did we ever live without it” idea 🙂

    p.s. You can make the YouTube video jump right to the quote if you add &t=7m10s to the URL when you paste it into WP.

    • Thanks for the comment & suggestion, Sean. I do have the t= URL parameter but the WordPress YouTube embed plugin is buggy: it escapes the “&” in the parameter list and then removes it. 😦

  7. Ivan says:

    I don’t know how revolutionary our startup is, on a scale from 0 to iPhone, but we got funded, and it wasn’t terribly painful.
    However I’m finding myself in a similar situation when pitching to prospective customers – most of them are looking for analogies to existing offerings in order to understand our value.
    I found customers to be significantly more conservative than investors, so the analogy and overall messaging has to be even simpler.
    The once that “get it” naturally end up being our early adopters, who help shape our messaging for the sceptics to understand, and that seems to be an important part of the startup lifecycle. Startups are fun!

    • Customers differ significantly based on their proclivity to engage and be happy with early stage startups as vendors. A good question to keep asking yourselves is whether a given customer is the right customer for right now as opposed to a point in the future.

      Customer development is a great methodology for solving the simultaneous equations of product market fit and finding customers that are easy to sell to.

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