6. Max Levchin

CEO, Affirm; board member, Yahoo

6. Max Levchin

The Endless-Idea Man

Max Levchin cofounded PayPal and now he starts other companies (such as new mobile-payments venture Affirm) out of his R&D lab, HVF (1). Below, his method on how to get startup ideas:


1. Talk to creative people at random

“This method has a pretty high noise to signal ratio, but it’s very enjoyable. I’ll spend two hours talking to a doctor about neurosurgery or about processes in emergency rooms. You learn a lot, and you’ll go: ‘This is the coolest thing ever and I don’t know how it’s useful to me.’”

2. Ask questions

“In one out of every five of those conversations, something strikes me, and I’ll ask, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ And most of the time the other person says, ‘Oh that’s because blah blah blah.’ But one out of every 10 of those questions the person says, ‘I don’t have any idea either.’ And then I write it down.”

3. Make lists

“I always carry around a device that runs Evernote (2). I have this massive notebook called IDEAS and another one called PERSONAL IDEAS (3) and another one called CRAZY IDEAS.”

4. Regularly check your lists

“I make it my business to go back and reread the stack of ideas quite frequently. (4) I’m up to 1000 notes or something crazy like that. When I get together with a friend (5) to brainstorm ideas, I bring, as a conversation starter, like five ideas I have in a field they might be interested in talking about.”

5. Follow random leads

“I’m obsessed with sensors. The other day I told one of the guys at HVF to buy every heart rate monitor he could get his hands on because its just an interesting thing. We bought every Wi-Fi scale a year ago because I wanted to find out what the true cost of making one of those was. (6)

6. Lists don’t always work (7)


1. Stands for “Hard Valuable Fun,” an incubator focused on founding data-driven startups. In February HVF launched Affirm, a payments company, and Levchin plans to launch a health care-focused company later this year. His previous incubator, MRL, launched Yelp and Slide.
2. Levchin sits on the Evernote board.
3. For instance: “When my kids are older I definitely need to build homemade fireworks with them.”
4. “I used to truck around a giant case with 200 legal pads that had every idea I’d ever written down. It goes back to the early ’90s. It’s in my garage.”
5. “I have another notebook called, PEOPLE I ENJOY HANGING OUT WITH.”
6. “One of the ideas I wrote down about year ago–and that I might still get to–is a bathroom scale that doesn’t have a readout but transmits your weight to some central health monitoring service.”
7. Case in point: Affirm, where Levchin currently serves as CEO. “It just came to me after a second glass of Pinot.”

[Portrait illustration by Denise Nestor]