What Microsoft Is this the Altair Basic of?

February 2015

One of the most valuable exercises you can try if you want to understand startups is to look at the most successful companies and explain why they were not as lame as they seemed when they first launched. Because they practically all seemed lame at first. Not just small, lame. Not just the first step up a big mountain. More like the first step into a swamp.

A Basic interpreter for the Altair? How could that ever grow into a giant company? People sleeping on airbeds in strangers' apartments? A web site for college students to stalk one another? A wimpy little single-board computer for hobbyists that used a TV as a monitor? A new search engine, when there were already about 10, and they were all trying to de-emphasize search? These ideas didn't just seem small. They seemed wrong. They were the kind of ideas you could not merely ignore, but ridicule.

Often the founders themselves didn't know why their ideas were promising. They were attracted to these ideas by instinct, because they were living in the future and they sensed that something was missing. But they could not have put into words exactly how their ugly ducklings were going to grow into big, beautiful swans.

Most people's first impulse when they hear about a lame-sounding new startup idea is to make fun of it. Even a lot of people who should know better.

When I encounter a startup with a lame-sounding idea, I ask "What Microsoft is this the Altair Basic of?" Now it's a puzzle, and the burden is on me to solve it. Sometimes I can't think of an answer, especially when the idea is a made-up one. But it's remarkable how often there does turn out to be an answer. Often it's one the founders themselves hadn't seen yet.

Intriguingly, there are sometimes multiple answers. I talked to a startup a few days ago that could grow into 3 distinct Microsofts. They'd probably vary in size by orders of magnitude. But you can never predict how big a Microsoft is going to be, so in cases like that I encourage founders to follow whichever path is most immediately exciting to them. Their instincts got them this far. Why stop now?