Ask people what it takes to build a successful business, and many will probably tell you that the most important factor is having an original idea. The entrepreneurial narrative we’re given is that someone has a groundbreaking, never-before-seen idea that solves some massive consumer problem, and then builds that idea into a large-scale, profitable enterprise.
It’s a good story, and one that’s worked out for many innovators, but the truth is actually counterintuitive: You don’t need a truly “original” idea to build a massively successful business. Just look at these five examples:
Google. Google is the dominant online search engine, and has been for many years, to the point where many people mistakenly believe it was also the first search engine on the scene. In reality, search engines are as old as the internet, and some — including Ask Jeeves (now known as Ask.com) were in operation with large user bases years before Google even emerged.
Google succeeded because it took an existing idea and made it better, by creating an architecture that provided searchers with better, more relevant results, and scaled its idea to maximize user experience. It wasn’t the first search engine — it was just the best.
Facebook. Do you remember Six Degrees? Do you have a Six Degrees account? I doubt it. But I bet that you and everybody you know has a Facebook account and that you previously may have had a MySpace account. Facebook is one of the biggest tech companies on the planet — and certainly is the biggest social media platform.
But the originator of the idea to use the internet to connect with other people wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, the world’s first “social media” site is credited as having been Six Degrees, which launched in 1996. The problem was, Six Degrees launched before enough people had internet access (or an interest in connecting with others online). And that was its downfall.
Pepsi. Coke and Pepsi are the two major soft drink names in the United States, and most people realize that Pepsi came along as a challenger to Coke — a point that was made painfully clear in the 1970s, with the “Cola Wars” in advertising and pop culture.
In reality, both brands date back to the late 1800s; Coke came along first, and was selling a million gallons per year before Pepsi was invented. Still, the soft drink was a quality alternative that was able to hold its own. That’s how it became the hundred billion dollar-plus company it is today.
FreshDirect. Today, FreshDirect is succeeding as one of the first and most cost-efficient grocery-delivery services online, But it wasn’t the first company to attempt the idea, by a long shot. That honor belongs to Webvan, a misguided startup that tried to introduce online grocery shopping and delivery back in 1998 before going bankrupt in 2001.
Like Six Degrees,Webvan launched too early, before the internet had a suitable user base. It invested too heavily in infrastructure, and just couldn’t get the revenue it needed to stay afloat.
Amazon. Amazon wasn’t the first ecommerce site to emerge from the dotcom boom. In fact, there were hundreds of online sellers, such as Boo.com, eToys.com and Eve.com, each of which specialized in one focused area of retail. It seemed like the best idea was to serve niche customers in one –and only one — area.
Amazon, meanwhile, went a different route, capitalizing on all these existing ideas at once by creating an all-in-one online shopping experience, where people could buy anything they wanted. And we all know the happy ending to that story.
Why “original” doesn’t mean purely original.
It’s true that you need to distinguish yourself from the competition, but you don’t necessarily have to come up with something truly original to do it. There are many other options:
- Improving an idea. You could build a better business by taking an existing idea and improving it in some way, such as by making it more affordable, more accessible, faster or more efficient — or all of these.
- Consolidating ideas. You could go the Amazon route and consolidate multiple business ideas together into one central plan.
- Offering an alternative. You could also offer an alternative to mainstream products and services, by adding competition where there wasn’t any before.
- Timing it right. Sometimes, businesses fail because they’re ahead of their time. If you can improve the timing for the general market, you can succeed where others have fallen.
- Marketing it effectively. Good companies with poor branding and/or nonexistent marketing campaigns tend to fizzle out. If you can build a better brand with the same idea, you can gain from someone else’s original vision.
Hopefully, these examples convince you that you don’t need a perfectly original idea to be a success. Instead, all you need is a good business model and a way to distinguish yourself from your competitors — one way or another.