When new, typically young entrepreneurs start thinking about how they’re going to launch a startup, their mind instantly begins sorting through potential ideas. And most of those entrepreneurs end up discouraged. Why? Because they can’t come up with some revolutionary, game-changing, never-before-considered idea to serve as the foundation for their business.
Obviously, if you have a “real” game changer, growing your business wouldn’t be hard. If you invent a device that instantly turns rotten food edible again, you’d not only skyrocket to popularity, but you’d have a good chance of solving world hunger. But coming up with these ideas is incredibly difficult, and executing them in a profitable way is even harder.
This is problematic because it dissuades some entrepreneurs from ever starting their own business, and convinces others to go down an improbably challenging path. There’s an aphorism commonly attributed to Voltaire, that “perfect is the enemy of good.” In other words, entrepreneurs spend so much time chasing these once-in-a-lifetime, picture-perfect ideas, they never end up working on solid ideas that could genuinely make the economy better—and earn them a profit in the meantime.
I contend that good startups don’t need to be revolutionary, or invent new industries from scratch (even though those types of ideas are helpful when they emerge). Instead, they simply need to be different.
Why “Different” Is Usually Enough
What do I mean by different? There are several ways your startup idea can differentiate itself from others, and some of those methods of differentiation will naturally be superior to others, depending on your current circumstances.
However, any of these approaches could potentially differentiate your business enough to give it a fighting chance of success:
- Accessibility. You could start my making some product or service more accessible. For example, laptops are just computers in a portable form; they work mostly the same, but can be folded up and carried anywhere, without the need to be plugged in constantly. Mobile pet grooming stations allow homeowners to purchase and use those services, even if they don’t feel like driving to the groomer’s location.
- Pricing. Another obvious twist to pull is lowering your prices (or in some cases, raising them in exchange for much higher quality). At the end of the day, most consumers still want the best deal, so if you can offer a similar product or service as a competitor for less money, you’ll instantly have an edge. The trick is finding a novel means of production that allows you to do this while still operating profitably.
- Service. Sometimes, you can differentiate yourself based on the extent and quality of service you offer. For example, if your customer service team is truly better than any other company on the market, you’ll eventually develop a reputation for it—and appeal to people frustrated with their customer service experiences in other places.
- Overall quality/usability. Google didn’t invent the search engine. Online search engines were around for years before Google got involved. But Google is the top name, and has been for more than 20 years, because it greatly improved the usability and quality of the online search engine. Find a way to genuinely improve upon an idea that already exists.
- Audience. No matter what, your changes are going to introduce you to a slightly different audience segment. But you can also build a business around targeting a completely different demographic from the outset; for example, if this is an industry that typically targets middle-aged men, consider designing a variant for teenagers, or for middle-aged women.
- Location. One of the easiest ways to differentiate your startup is by launching it in a different location, or serving a different location. This is usually limited to businesses with location dependencies, like physical retail storefronts, or how ridesharing services typically operate only in major metropolitan areas.
Adding one or more tweaks to an existing business model to make it stand apart will help you in several ways:
- Competition. First, you’ll limit the number of competitors you’ll face, while still capitalizing on an existing audience. If you were introducing a totally new concept, with no preexisting foundation, nobody would be actively looking for a business like yours. If you instead work within a new niche in an industry that already exists, you’ll filter out most of your existing competitors while still working with an active audience. This is the concept behind strategies like long-tail keyword optimization in search engine optimization (SEO); you’ll target longer, less competitive phrases related to a core industry, thereby avoiding the long-dominant competitors who would keep you from reaching the top position in search engine results pages (SERPs).
- Recognition/awareness. Offering some kind of novel appeal instantly makes you relevant with a different audience. Whether you’re offering larger scale services, smaller scale services, a more convenient location, or products tailored to a different demographic, you’re going to be more recognizable (and seen as more authoritative) to someone. If you capitalize on this, you’ll be able to generate much more momentum for your brand than you would in any other scenario.
- Memorability. Studies suggest that a blend of novelty and familiarity lead to higher memorability. For example, you’ll likely forget your drive home from work today if it’s completely uneventful; you’ve experienced it a thousand times, so it doesn’t stand out. But if you have a vivid dream with tons of obscure and formless details, you probably won’t remember those either. Instead, if you see a man in an elephant costume on your way home from work, you’ll remember it indefinitely; it’s an abnormal twist to a normal situation. Your business can take advantage of the same model; rather than offering something never before seen, offer a new version of what already exists. It will make your brand instantly easier to remember.
- Appeal to investors. Most businesses still need sufficient funding to survive, even if they’re built on a great foundation. While investors tend to salivate at the thought of investing in a business with a completely untapped market, most are fundamentally realists. They understand that truly original ideas are nearly impossible, and the few that slip through are usually a little too early or a little too unpolished to be successful. Instead, presenting them with a new twist on an old model is a way to prove your real competence as an entrepreneur—and it will make a better impression.
Adopting the Right Mentality
To be satisfied with a startup idea that’s similar to an existing business model, you have to separate yourself from the idea that startup entrepreneurs are supposed to come up with brand-new ideas, from scratch. Coming up with a truly original idea is nearly impossible, and what we think of as truly “new” concepts are still somehow just extensions or modifications of concepts that already existed. For example, online search engines don’t work much differently than a library index or encyclopedia. Uber, Lyft, and other ridesharing services aren’t that different than taxi services.
Accordingly, you’re not really changing what you want to accomplish; don’t think of this as shifting from wanting to be a thought leader with a new concept to being a copycat with a clever twist. Instead, change what you think of as a “new concept.”
When you understand that even the most innovative startups are just combining ideas from businesses that already exist and adding a few light modifications, you’ll free yourself up to think of a wider range of potential ideas—and you won’t immediately dismiss anything that doesn’t immediately register as “game changing.”
Entrepreneurship is a good thing, both for individuals and for the economies in which they function. New businesses provide new jobs, higher local productivity, and an environment that generates and experiments with new ideas. But entrepreneurship is stifled when it has a narrow or limiting definition. Instead, we need to cultivate more business ownership and more enthusiastic experimentation by ending the myth that the only successful startups are somehow wholly unique.
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