Time for startups to get over myth of the ‘one big idea’ and just get going [Opinion]

https://pixabay.com/en/users/TeroVesalainen-809550/ via Pixabay

One of the biggest excuses people give for not starting a business is that they don’t have that “big original idea” yet.

There are a quadrillion startup ideas out there, but just a handful are converted into companies because most people stay paralysed in the ideation phase, and their business simply never happens. They eventually just become big talkers, with no action to back it up.

Sometimes this is caused by fear of the unknown, a need to control the outcome, fear of failure, or fear of leaving that comfortable, addictive salary.

Needing that “big idea” is the biggest misconception about starting your own business.

Most startups are not based on one idea or eureka moment, but thousands of intertwined micro-decisions and micro-ideas, evolved over time, that create that business.

Sewn into this creation are thousands of moments of failures and successes that shape what will become the entrepreneur’s business.

Of course, an entrepreneur does need to have a broad sense of what direction they want to take, but it’s more important to roll up your sleeves and start executing, even when that idea is imperfect or not fully formed. Paradoxically, the reality is that the big idea is mostly created when you start working with it.

We only truly become experts in what we do by being immersed in it, living it and thinking about it, and applying it in the real world.

Most successful entrepreneurs I know obsessively think about their businesses morning and night, especially during the frenetic startup phase where everything is going wrong.

These are the entrepreneurs that are in the process of becoming deep experts in what they do – and it’s only by doing it, not dreaming about it that a sophisticated business idea is created over time.

It’s probably why many (but not all!) corporates are so bad at innovating – they are just not willing to wing it (and therefore take on risk), but need to try control the outcome through reports, business cases, and endless brainstorming sessions. This often throttles the creative process.

Your idea does not have to be original

There is no perfectionism in entrepreneurship. Start, even if your idea is not fully formed or you still have doubts.

Start, even if it’s a copy of another business – yours will evolve in another direction and it will become unique as you apply it to your new context, with your special touch. Even if you see one hundred competitors out there, just start.

Your business will adapt into something else that may turn out differentiated to the rest.

An entrepreneur’s idea does not have to be completely original. It is ok, and often preferable, to copy other businesses and business models.

This may sound like heresy, but the reality is that unless you are an inventor, scientist or an MIT graduate involved in deep research, your idea is unlikely to be truly original anyway.

In fact, a dirty little secret of the investment industry is that most VCs prefer copied ideas and business models. A more polite way of putting it is that investors prefer startups with tried-and-tested business models, because they are low-risk and most likely to generate a return on their investment.

I see many entrepreneurs abandon business ideas because they are “not original enough”.

The unique selling point and creative differentiation of an entrepreneur’s business often only becomes clearer as that business evolves and grows. It’s not something you have to (or are even able to) decide upfront.

We are at our most innovative and creative when we are in startup mode. Motivation and inspiration is often derived from scarce resources, positive pressure and stress, causing entrepreneurs come up with their best business decisions and ideas under pressure, and out of pure necessity.

The art of the pivot

As the entrepreneur executes his or her business, it may even end up something completely different as the entrepreneur responds to market forces, gains insight or the business moves them in an unexpected direction. In startup parlance, it’s called a pivot.

Don’t take my word for it — some of the most famous billion-dollar internet companies today became something very different to what was intended.

Twitter began as Odeo, a network where people could find and subscribe to podcasts. The company then changed direction and became what we know as Twitter.

Even then it was originally conceived as an online SMS communication service, not a news and social networking service.

In fact, Twitter’s 140-character limit was originally based on the notion in 2006 that tweets were to be SMS-based, which only allowed for limited characters.

YouTube started off as a video dating site with the slogan “Tune in, Hook up.” It never quite took off and the founders soon realised that user-generated content of everyday life worked better.

Instagram started off as Burbn, a strange check-in hybrid gaming app that no-one quite understood. The founders streamlined the app to focus only on photo sharing – which became the wildly successful Instagram we know today.

Flickr too, started off as an online role-playing game and ended up focusing on just photo sharing.

Groupon started off as a site to get behind social and charitable causes known as the Point. Groupon was but a mere feature of the site, allowing customers to pool their money and negotiate group discounts.

The concept of the “daily deal” evolved as the site’s users grew, and began to focus on a more commercial offering.

Shopify was never intended to be a world-wide platform for ecommerce, but a small online store selling snowboards called “Snowdevil”.

In fact the founders initially didn’t even intend to create their own ecommerce software. They eventually ended up creating a business out of the software behind that store, initially called Jaded Pixel, now powering more than half a million online store fronts with revenues in 2018 expected to be at more than $1-billion, now known as Shopify.

The main focus of the company behind Slack, the world-famous online communication and collaboration tool, was online gaming. The company abandoned gaming to focus on the part of their business we know today as Slack, now boasting 8-million daily active users and 3 million paid users.

Airbnb, then airbedandbreakfast.com, was originally envisaged as a business that would rent out airbeds, but evolved into its current $38-billion version that rents out homes and experiences worldwide.

Netflix never set out to be a world-wide streaming company. The original business model involved DVD sales and rental by mail.

Paypal was conceived to allow people to beam payments from their PDAs and only moved into what is its core business, online payments, later on. Both Google and Facebook initially never set out to be online advertising platforms, but became that as their business model evolved.

Here at home, we all know about the global internet company that started off as a newspaper company (and in the near future, was once a TV company too).

In the internet age, you can’t afford to wait and dream. Things move quickly. Digital business platforms are changing at an exponential rate.

Some of the world’s mega internet companies, like Facebook and Google, are barely in their 20s. Nokia, which was once the world’s most innovative company and king of cellphones, was completely wiped out in the space of 10 years because of a failure to keep up with the times.

So don’t wait for that perfect, original, big idea. Just take what you have and start doing. In the doing, you are creating. So, what are you waiting for?

Featured image: TerVesalainen via Pixabay

Matthew Buckland is an investor, entrepreneur and the founder of Burn Media Group, which publishes Ventureburn.comThis column was first published in Business Day. See that version here.

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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