Do you have to invent something completely “new” to have a successful startup?
Most of the great startups of our time were evolutionary, not revolutionary.
- Google’s search engine was certainly better than the dozens that came before it, but it was still just a search engine as far as users were concerned.
- Facebook was a stable, fast version of MySpace and Friendster — there was nothing original about it, truth be told. It was simply executed at a very, very high level.
- Apple 2.0 — which I would define as the consumer electronics company — did not invent the mp3 player, the smartphone, or the tablet. All three of those products were in market for years before Apple entered.
- Tesla Motors was not the first battery-powered car, but it was the first serious effort in a long time — and it was filled with dozens of innovations that collectively add up to the greatest car ever made (according to the experts).
Those are the biggest companies in the technology space and they made their fortunes based on perfecting other people’s inventions.
And that’s no dig to anyone at those companies. The people who invent truly new things in the world tend to work at University labs or they are science fiction authors!
Now, there are dozens and dozens of choices that are made while building a killer product that change, evolve, or tweak them just enough to make them extraordinary.
So extraordinary are these collections of innovations that these companies will be credited in people’s minds with inventing the category.
For founders & investors this realization is critical:
- For founders: this frees founding teams from thinking that there is something wrong with building on other people’s ideas. The best products examine the previous solutions deeply and build on them — there is nothing wrong with that. (There IS something wrong with simply copying someone’s idea, which we will get into later).
- For investors: this frees (intelligent) investors from the insane refrain, “I’ve seen this idea already.” Well, if you’ve been angel investing for more than a year or two you sure as heck better have seen most ideas before! I’ve seen dozens of folks try to solve the local space, but Marco at Thumbtack.com seems to have the best approach and the biggest chutzpah!
Now, if you have figured out that you’ve seen almost everything already, you are free to try and iterate on this problem by trying to make every aspect of your product MUCH better than the aspects of the products before it.
Of course, sometimes the best way to make a product better is to take a bunch of junk out. So, making those products better is about taking out features that a small number of folks use a small amount of time, and focusing on the features that everyone uses all the time. This is especially true on mobile, where the work is moving to one feed, one function and one button Apps (think: Uber, Hotel Tonight, Instagram, Vine, and Squarespace’s excellent “Note” App).
The best challenge I find is to ask yourself, “What five things can I make 20% better in my product?” When you do that things get really awesome — and fast.
For example, here are five things that I would like to make 20% better in Inside.com:
- Design of Apps
- Speed of Apps
- Curation tools for the public
- Supporting more media types (right now, only images, animated gifs, and YouTube videos).
We are going to release gorgeous 3.0 Inside Apps in mid-February, and we’re working on the speed of those Apps with all kinds of background downloading. We’re also trying to get our logins to work faster and more consistently (with Twitter and Facebook’s APIs — actually, it’s not that easy). We’re also trying to get more media in there, while letting the public do more than just submit a URL (maybe add the media and edit the post next).
These types of “what can we make better, faster, and more stable” ideas can actually be transformative for a startup that already has traction. Of course, if you’re not getting traction after some time it is doubtful you will actually get more if you make five things 20% better.
If you don’t have product & market fit you need to typically stop and figure out what new things you can try — and that can be where learning how to invent new things comes in handy.
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