What if a time-travelling, pre-Apple Jobs & Wozniak applied to Y Combinator without a startup idea?

What kind of problem would YC have suggested for these prospective startup founders to work on?

Y Combinator recently introduced a controversial new option for applicants to their accelerator program, who ‘wanted to start a startup, but who didn’t have an idea for one’.

For the purposes of this thought-experiment, we probably have little alternative but to assume that these two temporally itinerant pre-entrepreneurs had just unwittingly stepped into a rift in the time-space continuum, rather than that they’d just invented a time machine, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have had any obvious need to apply to Y Combinator, and even if they did, it probably wouldn’t be a ‘no idea application’.

Why is ‘starting with no idea’ a good idea?

Here’s Paul Graham‘s justification:

  • a lot of the startups change their ideas completely, and some of those do really well
  • smart people who think they can’t come up with a good startup idea are generally mistaken
  • almost every smart person has a good idea in them
  • a good startup idea is simply a significant, fixable unmet need, and most smart people are at least unconsciously aware of several of those
  • yc have lots of practice helping founders see the startup ideas they already have

The way that the ‘no idea application’ to Y Combinator is intended to work seems to be that a suitable idea would be suggested to the applicants by Y Combinator and agreed before acceptance.

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham published a list of 30 ideas called ‘Startup ideas we’d like to fund‘ in 2008.

In March at PyCon 2012 Paul issued another list of 7 ideas, in a seminal talk he called “Frighteningly ambitious statup ideas” (notice the relevance here of idea number 5):

  1. A New Search Engine
  2. Replace Email
  3. Replace Universities
  4. Internet Drama
  5. The Next Steve Jobs
  6. Bring Back Moore’s Law
  7. Ongoing Diagnosis

There’s a discussion here about updating the original 2008 list of ideas and someone else has also put together a list of “25 startup ideas for 2012” here.

We’d also have to assume that this thought experiment was essentially a probe into certain key aspects of their personalities, in order to get some fresh insight into their suitability to starting a startup in 2012 (which is why we would need to have them arrive from 1975, just before they decided to start Apple Computers).

What aspects of their YC application interview would have indicated that they would deserve acceptance into the next YC batch?

What sort of things would be expected to have taken place in the course of that brief session that might have convinced Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, or anyone else in attendance that these two completely unknown guys (another feature necessary for this thought experiment, in which both Jobs and Woz would need to be unheard of, but still have had the personalities that they had in ’75) were not a complete waste of any further YC time or money, as would be the case with the vast majority of applicants?

Knowing what we know about their personalities and inclinations, what sort of things could have gone wrong at that stage, such that they might have failed to convince YC of their suitability and would have resulted in them being rejected? (as with most startups, there were many things which did not go smoothly in the early days of Apple).

The more I think about this scenario, the more I feel it sounds like a intriguing plot for a ‘counter-factual novel’, an exploration of ‘what might (or might not) have been’ if Jobs and Wozniak had not founded Apple, but had instead gone down some completely different entrepreneurial path (in a way, the Pixar episode shows just how tenable this might be).

However, that isn’t the reason why it occurred to me, or why I think it might be of value.

Here we have, with these two, at that early stage, what in most people’s minds would constitute (with hindsight) the two prospective startup founders with the most potential for success imaginable.

Turning them down, would be a bit like ‘turning down The Beatles’ (something which, amazingly enough, actually happened at the start of the future Fab Four’s story).

Steering the career path of future major-achievers, in terms of ‘what things to start work on’, is probably an under-researched aspect of innovation studies.

The great mathematician Paul Erdos, who was by far the most prolific academic collaborator in history, and contributed to over 1,500 papers, many of which were exceptionally innovative, was treasured by his fellow mathematicians because he would unerringly instinctively identify suitable problems for a prospective collaborator to work on.

They claimed that Erdos intuitively ‘understood their personal (perhaps unconscious?) taste’ in terms of the kinds of problems that would motivate them to produce the most outstanding results.

Is it this same kind of intuition, in this case applied (by YC staff) to selecting exactly the right kind of startup ideas for (what YC discern to be) the as-yet unproven (but nonetheless somehow discernible) capabilities of the prospective entrepreneur, that holds out the unquestionably astonishing possibility that a ‘no-idea’ interview might turn into a YC acceptance that could (in this case) result in the counter-factual Jobs and Wozniak becoming as successful as YC Accelerated Startup Founders as Apple was without such support?