Is a Unique Idea a Prerequisite to a Successful Startup?

By Pedro Noyola

“It’s the Facebook for people who love cats.”
“It’s like Rent the Runway but for scuba diving gear.”

I’m sure we’ve all heard potential entrepreneurs describe their nascent businesses in this way. And why shouldn’t they? Using analogous businesses to describe a nonexistent one can be extremely useful shorthand to help paint a grand vision. However, I think this common practice begs the question: Is a unique idea a prerequisite to a successful startup? I say no.

There should be no shame in applying a proven business model in a different vertical or to a different customer problem. First of all, let’s get over ourselves. There’s no such thing as an original idea. By the time that bajillion dollar idea comes together for us, seven other people have already thought of and discarded it. That is to say that the idea itself is only part of the battle. Strategy, product, salesmanship, user experience, scalability, and execution all matter at least as much as the idea.

Moreover, if we all waited for a bolt-of-lightning, golden-ticket idea to come to us in the shower, then we would never start anything… and our fingers would get really pruny. Clay Christensen preaches the idea of emergent strategy, Eric Ries talks about iterative design, and Agile development is nearly a religion. What do these three schools of thought have in common? They all teach us that sometimes you just have to start and test and learn.

Before we all run off to build the next <insert current TechCrunch darling>, let me provide a couple of qualifiers to the notion that a unique idea is not a prerequisite for startup success. Each of these could be a future blog post, but I’ll keep it brief for now. One, know the difference between a product and a business. For example, businesses can establish barriers to entry. Kickstarter, you listening? Two, understand that large incumbents have immense resources to put behind sustaining innovations, so simply trying to make a better widget than XYZ Conglomerate Inc. is a recipe for disaster. A unique idea may not be necessary, but business acumen is.

Are entrepreneurs destined for success if they copy+paste business models? Absolutely not. But are they destined for failure? No, not if they keep in mind first principles.


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