All entrepreneurs have heard phrases like, “There’s already an app for that,” or, “X company already has first-mover advantage.” When I did my first startup, I initially quivered whenever one of these phrases was mentioned, but now my response is this: “So what?”
In the first pitch competition I ever entered, I had the idea to build a consolidated cloud service so a user could tie all of their Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive, and other cloud services together into one mega cloud drive. As soon as I had pitched the idea, everyone came up to me and said, “I love your idea, but the winner of the MIT 100K competition already pitched your idea.” Rats! Somebody beat me to my idea.
I decided to pivot to word processing for tablets, but again everyone said I was crazy since Google Docs and Microsoft Word dominate the market. By this time, I had formed a team of individuals who were passionate about productivity applications, and together we pivoted to build a better touch keyboard. However, the feedback piled up. There are a ton companies trying to innovate in this space, but none of them can beat Apple’s built-in keyboard. Well, I guess we’ll scratch that idea.
Then we pivoted to building a note-taking app for our next pitch competition, and again the chorus rang out that we were entering a crowded market. Disheartened, my team and I decided to meet one late night and figure out what we were going to do. After writing every startup idea we had on a dry-erase board, we crossed off ideas that were not feasible due to technical, financial, and/or time constraints. Then, we crossed off ideas that weren’t extremely lucrative. Finally we were down to three ideas and our final question: Has somebody already beaten us to the market? In every instance, there was a direct competitor already in that space.
It was in that moment I resolved to stop caring about the competition. I said to my team, “Forget about what the competitors are doing. Let’s just do what we love and what we do well.” We returned to our idea of note-taking and poured our souls into the product, calling it Chisel. Within three weeks, we had a beta launch and received great feedback from our test group. We then entered another pitch competition and placed third. Eight weeks after our pivot, we launched on the App Store, and within 8 hours, a blog found our newly minted app and wrote a great review. Suddenly we had 1,000 downloads within the first three days on the App Store.
This launch occurred recently, so my team and I realize we still have a long road ahead. But, I’m sure we could not have achieved our success so far without following our passion and conviction.
Throughout this experience, I kept thinking back on the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. In his book, Collins emphasizes the importance of getting the “right people on the bus.” He also teaches the “Hedgehog Concept” which is to do something in which you: 1.) can make money, 2.) be passionate about, and 3.) be the best in the world at. I feel like I internalized these principles during my experience.
During my struggle to find an idea, I was able to get the right people on the bus: a fabulous designer, coder, and financial modeler. We then iterated through the Hedgehog concept until we found something we could generate revenue with, something we’re passionate about, and something we thought we could be the best in the world at. Who cares if there is competition? Battling competition and beating the odds is what makes entrepreneurship tough, yet so worthwhile.
Too often we focus on the idea and spin our wheels without getting anywhere, when our focus should be on securing talent and channeling passion. After all, if you’re not passionate about your business, your competition will be and it will carry them across the finish line.