A startup is a company in the making. By definition, it seeks product-market fit.
Since the term ‘startup’ came into popularity at the end of the dot com bubble, overblown success stories like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr helped create the idea that, in order to be successful, a startup had to bring something new and original to the market. But this newness kept people from noticing that deep down, these companies were just really well thought-out businesses.
With this post, I’ll tackle the notion and process that leads us to believe that, in order to be successful, a startup has to have an original solution, an original market and/or an original business model.
Is starting up about being original?
My previous startup Flagback started with a simple idea. We wanted to allow freelancers and agencies to share feedback and communicate directly on a Web page (any Web page). No one else was approaching the problem quite like this…
With four Web experts on the problem, we wound up with a part Web / part browser solution and an über flexible business model. Up pops a competitor or two, the lure of TechCrunch 50 and we end up with a great solution and a great business model that we (partially) invented. Our market wasn’t new (at least…) but, come time to put the solution into customers’ hands, the source of the issues were very blurred out. Was this an issue with the business model, the solution, something else?
Inventing a product or solution is certainly fun and exciting but building a succesful business is rarely about you and what you find challenging.
Do you want to invent or run a business?
Comparing the two it’s clear that there are very different risk levels between them. How many failed inventors for every Thomas Edison? How many failed startup founders for every Mark Zuckerberg?
Inventing a product gives you first-mover advantage but being first rarely is a sustainable advantage. By being first, you set the bar and open your flanks to a myriad of unseen competitors.
Chances are someone else is already working on your original idea (or something very close to it) and many will compete if you’re succesful. Originality as such is more lack of knowledge and in-depth competitive research than something that should influence your decision to start up (Do it anyway!)
Originality is an artifical constraint. Setting ‘being original’ as a goal for your product or business will result in the creation of an unnecessarily complicated solution with blurry positioning. People relate to what they know and can understand. If your solution comes out of left field, it will be that much more challenging to sell and to position.
There a definite situations where originality, if found, can lead to a sustainable or at least temporary business advantage. In those situations it is very much welcomed as long as you realize that the more original your solution, the more at risk it becomes.
Below is the Originality Risk Chart. In the middle is the Death zone (Avoid!)
Targeting a new market with a new technology and a new business model calls for disaster. Pick your moment to be original and let your creativity shine. Make sure part of your business sits on stable ground; starting up is not an originality contest.