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Sorry to tell you this, but… being unique won’t make your startup money

It was a day packed with over five consecutive meetings. As I huffed and puffed towards my final destination, meeting up with the private banker of a tech entrepreneur whose achievement badges include his NASDAQ-listed gaming company. It would be a typical investment pitch, like millions of other pitches I had done. The only difference was pitching to a private banker — a career I was going into until I got mesmerized by the tech world. Let’s call him Paul.

Paul was sharp, astute, and surprised me with his knowledge in the startup scene and tech industry. He certainly knew what he was dealing with, and what he was saying. I sat intently, answering him patiently and factually whenever he had questions, at least, until the last quarter of the meeting when Paul asked, “So what is exactly unique about your business? There is no stopping anyone in China to copy whatever you have, in minutes”.

Now, a little background about Gametize: We are a gamification platform startup that helps companies engage their audience through game thinking and game design. Our gamification technology lets schools quickly create simple learning games out of their content, or enable e-commerce websites reward loyalty points to their consumers who answer quizzes, predictions, complete photo contests or make repeated purchases. Paul certainly believed that this technology can be replicated easily by a bunch of engineers. I don’t disagree, and this is what I answered:

“Yes, there is nothing unique in the technology. Anyone can copy us and do the same stuff. We did not raise enough to patent, and neither do I believe it is worth the effort to patent.”

Time stood still for a moment, while Paul and the other two counterparts looked at me with bemused expressions. I took a deep breath and continued, “But, being unique doesn’t make you money. Execution, network, and a product that truly helps someone with their pain with as little friction, are what make the dough. Facebook wasn’t unique, and so were not Mailchimp, GMarket, Dropbox”.

The latter brands are all my favorite products which I paid good money to, and none of these guys were the first in the market. We are already familiar with how there was Friendster before Facebook, K Mart before Walmart, and even Big Boy before Mcdonalds. These are some of the most successful brands in the world, but none of them could count as the the pioneers in their own respective industry.

If being unique isn’t a kingmaker, what then makes one? The iPhone I used to demo my app to Paul is arguably the most successful consumer electronics product in the 21st century, but it definitely wasn’t the first touch-based smartphone I have seen. I could use many S-words to describe it – “special”, “simple”, “sexy”, but “unique” it is not. Yet, its success is not easily replicated by many, mainly Chinese manufacturers who have “shanzai-ed” the device but not come close to Apple. Apple’s success boils down to hundreds of reasons (brilliant marketing, brilliant people, brilliant choice of brand, brilliant ______, etc). In summary, it is the brilliance in execution.

There are many reasons why a brilliant execution can happen, and many wonderful outcomes and consequences after that. You as an entrepreneur must be able to articulate and cultivate these building blocks. The hustling, the people you know, the culture, the strength of the leader, the management team, a focused vision/mission, and some even say luck. Juggle them all you must, instead of getting soaked on how fantastic and unique your idea is, because I can guarantee you someone out there has a better idea than you.

It will be a tiring, frustrating roller coaster journey where you get interrogated by guys like Paul, but next time you bump into him, you know what to say, and if you’ve got some balls to deliver this like a boss, try what I did (in reference to the competition): point to your head and say “those guys don’t have this”.

This guest post by co-founder of gamification startup Gametize, Keith Ng, originally appeared on e27, a Burn Media publishing partner.

Author Bio

Founded in 2007, e27 is a media organization focused on the Asian technology startup industry. We believe in building the community of technology innovators across Asia by reporting on the latest, breaking news relevant to technology startups, technology companies as well as investors on the e27 blog while keeping... More

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