Finding startup ideas with Zettelkasten

How I organized my observations and ideas using Zettelkasten to start a company.

I recently founded a startup. Reflecting on it now, Zettelkasten was the tool that helped me the most along the way.

Here's how I used Zettelkasten to start the company and raise money.

Much has been said about finding startup ideas, but I prefer a combination of bottom-up and top-down reasoning. I started by researching in areas I was already an expert in and thought about adjacent problems I've encountered. Then I talked to a lot of people—potential users and experts in the field—to validate my assumptions.

All of the research and interviews generated volumes of information. It was difficult to sift through to get the full picture.

Rather than attempt to absorb it all at once, I turned that research and interviews into descrete observations encoded into Zettelkasten-style notes. As I wrote them, I looked for related notes and linked them together. Writing notes and finding how they connected helped me clarify my understanding and refine it into useful pieces of information.

Now that the pieces were there, the rest started to come into focus. I wrote a memo about the problem, the market, and how to go about solving it using the notes I already wrote.

Writing it revealed what I didn't know and provided a blueprint of what to look into next. There's something wonderful about writing that forces you to clarify things you thought you knew.

Nailing it down was time consuming, but critical to clarifying my understanding of the problem and the ability to convey it to others. I like to remind myself that reading is the transformation of a linked list of ideas into a tree (I'm resisting the urge to say 'of knowledge') so you must be clear and precise if you hope to be understood.

Once it was all written down and the key question was answered (Barbara Minto's Pyramid Principle has excellent advice on how to do that) I shared it around. In fact, I didn't have a pitch deck until much later in the process because the document (and willingness to read it) were far more effecient and effective. Without using Zettelkasten, I don't think I would have gotten there so quickly or as rigorously.

Side note: investors will probably never ask you to write a memo about your idea, but perhaps they should. It would improve the investor's understanding and avoid unnecessary meetings. What's more, it would materially improve the founder's understanding too. (Let's also not forget, a PowerPoint deck is an awful way to communicate important information).

So, should you use a Zettelkasten to find your next startup idea? I think it would certainly help.