“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.” – Paul Graham, Y Combinator
I didn’t know of Paul Graham at the time, but it’s the same spirit that led me to move from New York to Hyderabad. I was working at a social investment fund focused on businesses in the developing world. I’d caught the entrepreneurial bug and wanted to explore market-based solutions to address the problem of quality education for low income children in India. I knew I needed to do it in direct partnership with parents, teachers, and the children, to understand the problems they navigated; I needed to be more proximate.
But I soon learned just being there wasn’t enough. No matter how much I listened, no matter how much I empathized, my team who lived in these communities, whose children would attend our schools, were the ones with stronger solutions.
Proximity — whether emotional, physical, or intellectual — is also one of our core principles in New Product Experimentation (NPE). We’re building new experimental products with the goal to meaningfully improve people’s lives. And we believe we’ll increase the odds of our products’ success if we build from a place of proximity.
Each of our small teams are led by someone who is proximate to the problem they’re trying to solve. For example, Manish Gaudi is a live event super fan — especially of sports. He’s attended matches in 75 different venues around the world, including every Major League Baseball stadium in the US. He even got married in one. Manish came to NPE to solve one problem: making the social experience around live events better in our digital-first world. The impact of COVID-19 on live events accelerated his commitment. So, he launched Venue to bring fans together when they can’t be at the stadium, on the green, or even watching with groups of friends in person.
Brittany Mennuti is an artist. She understands the joy of turning a blank canvas into self-expression. In fact, two of her paintings have hung in the US Capitol building. So, she also knows you can’t build for creatives without building with them. That means both her team — engineers and designers who are also musicians and furniture-makers — and outside Facebook. When COVID-19 kept us apart, Brittany’s team pushed to get Collab — an app to make collaborative, short music videos with anyone from anywhere — in the hands of online cover artists and musicians. They meet with these creators daily, from discussion in a Facebook Group, to making music with them in the app. Brit, and her Dachshund, Cannoli, are some of Collab’s most prolific publishers.
The challenges of corporate innovation are well documented, but we believe this principle will increase our chances of success.
- Proximity fosters efficiency & integrity. Our intuition is stronger because we’re proximate to the communities we serve — we can hack through challenges faster, and we can see risks earlier.
- Proximity cuts through ambiguity. We can take on complex, messy problems because we are living through them.
- Proximity inspires problem solving. Our teams iterate until they get to the strongest solution. We acknowledge that technology is only a part of solving problems, but it’s where we can begin.
We are at the beginning of this journey. By design, we expect to shut down many apps. And that’s the joy of experimentation. We will see what works and learn from what doesn’t. But if we build with proximity, we’re confident we can improve our odds.