How Did We Get Our Idea For Our Startup?

Q:  We just started looking for venture funding and I have a question. Why do VC’s ask us how our idea came about? Are they looking for an emotional and inspiring story or are they worried that we may have taken our idea from someone else or, what I believe is the case, do they want to see if we were driven by an opening in the market that we observed? Of course, if we are giving our answer in a way that addresses one or two of these issues then you are probably missing the third.  Please help!

A: (Jason)  Without sounding too glib the answer is "all of the above and maybe more, probably."  Your guesses as to why are probably accurate and it, of course depends on to whom you are speaking with.  I’ll address each of your guesses individually.

1.  "Emotionally and Inspiring Story" -  Without getting all Sally Struthers-like, it is nice to see engaged and passionate entrepreneurs.  Building a successful startup is really, really tough.  If you aren’t in love with the company going in, it will not turn out well for you or your investors.  That being said, don’t put on an act.

2. "Taken Our Idea from someone else" – This is a big one.  If you come and pitch a next-generation social networking site and previously worked at Facebook, we are going to have an in-depth discussion.  Maybe you didn’t steal it, but maybe your former employer will have a claim on the intellectual property developed while you were employed. 

3. "Driven by a new market" – This also might be part of the question.  Whatever VC you speak to, you should know more about your market than they do.  I, personally, ask many questions and rely on them as part of my education.  Maybe you really have found an "unscratched itch."

One other potential reason is to see how you sell the vision and product.  You are going to get this question often from potential customers and this is a way to see you sell and see how efficiently you can answer a potentially complicated question. 

Or, perhaps it is just a trite icebreaker and the VCs are just asking you this so they’ll have time to answer emails on their blackberry while you wax poetically. 

  • “Or, perhaps it is just a trite icebreaker and the VCs are just asking you this so they'll have time to answer emails on their blackberry while you wax poetically.” Awesome.

  • During my 2-year stint at CTEK (Colorado Technology Incubator) in Boulder, I met with a load of 2 or 3 person very early stage startups. This was one of the first questions I always asked. As Jason notes, if there is ANY question you can ask to break the ice and get a passionate response from, this would have to be it. It gives the investor the opportunity to quickly feel the passion and excitement and raises the connection level of the meeting. It is important to understand whether the idea came out of “working in the space for several years and seeing a hole” or “we listed 15 game ideas and this was the coolest”. It also lets you get a feel for how many “I's” and “we's” get into the conversation. It gives you a chance to feel the dynamics between the founders. Who is the idea-dude, who is the practical “enough talk, let's do” dude, and how does an idea develop.

    I think it's a terrific question to start with. And it would be doing MYSELF an injustice to be working the blackberry during the answer.


  • JPayne

    They want to know if you have any particular domain knowledge that makes you uniquely able to conceive of and execute on this opportunity.

  • Great article. I might suggest a pretty awesome book for understanding the entrepreneurial code, “The Answer.”

  • The way the entrepreneur answers the question: “How did you get this idea…?” instantly provides the VC with an insight into the entrepreneurs mental make-up: it is like a litmus test that reveals the presence (if any) and degree of passion, originality, knowledge, foresight and pragmatism.