I left my job at Mentor Graphics on November 15th with the stated goal of starting a new business. But, I haven’t yet figured out what that new business should be. In fact, I’m finding the process of thinking about what new business to start to be a real challenge.
I have certainly eliminated some businesses. Businesses focused primarily on open-source development tools are right out because I have no desire to compete with my good friends at Mentor Graphics. I love living in Bonny Doon, California, so businesses that require living elsewhere are out. It seems generally desirable to make some use of my software engineering background, so businesses with no high-tech component are out. And, as I would like the new business to have the chance to reach significant scale, starting an artisanal bakery featuring only goods made from recently-picked olallieberries doesn’t seem like a good idea. Though it does sound yummy!
It was easy to start CodeSourcery. I knew quite a lot about compilers (from an academic perspective) and I was starting to understand GCC pretty well. CodeSourcery’s inception was, in fact, accidental! Before even forming the idea of starting a business, I got a phone call from a prospective client, asking if I would take on some GCC development work. All I did was to pay attention to an unambiguous signal that there was market demand for skills that I had.
But, in this new phase, I’m not looking to make direct use of something I already know. I’m trying to identify a market opportunity — ideally, some product or service that doesn’t quite exist yet, but which will be in great demand soon — and then use my skills to pursue it. I’ll probably have to develop new skills and work with other people in order to capture that market. But, how does one go about the process of finding something exciting to pursue?
I’ve concluded that the process is inherently artistic, not scientific. It’s not sufficient to say something like “smartphone sensors are a fast-growing market without an overly large entrenched competitor.” That may be true, but there are probably dozens of companies entering the market, and big players like Samsung, Apple, and Google are almost certainly investing heavily. There are so many unknowns that trying to scientifically determine, through methodical examination of the relevant data, where a good opportunity lies is impossible. Instead, like a novelist thinking about a new plot, or a painter picking a subject, you need inspiration.
But, artists don’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. Great artists practice their technique. They constantly observe the work of other artists. Visual artists sketch. Novelists write outlines, or short stories, or make notes on interesting characters they meet. Composers improvise at the piano. Eventually, an idea begins to gel. Then, the artist goes to work more methodically, applying his or her technique to develop the idea into a finished work.
So, my job right now is to learn to be a business artist. I’m reading books and magazines and news articles and blogs about businesses, technology, markets, psychology, management and anything else that seems relevant. I’m meeting anyone who is interested in talking to me about business. I’m sketching business plans. I’m making notes about things that frustrate me; there might be a business in eliminating those frustrations! At some point, one of those ideas is going to start seeming worthy of more investment. And, perhaps, with the right collaborators, I’ll be able to chisel away just the right amount of marble, in just the right way, to sculpt a beautiful business.