When I was a kid modern capitalism hadn’t yet figured out an efficient way to ship glorified tap water thousands of miles from Fiji and then hoodwink the masses into paying for it. Back then our drink of choice had a distinct do-it-yourself flavour. In the early 1980s almost all the kids on my block owned a Soda Stream – a small, kitchen gadget that allowed you to create your own fizzy drinks by pumping gas into bottles filled with tap water before mixing-in a sickly sweet syrup. With just a few pumps of the Soda Stream carbonate button you could effortlessly join the Type 2 Diabetes express train by inhaling endless gallons of “homemade” coke, lemonade or root beer. But now – almost 30 years later –Soda Stream is back, and doing rather well. Which proves that the best new ideas are always…well…the old ones.
If I was planning to launch a start-up tomorrow my approach would be very simple. Research all the companies that launched and then folded in the digital space between the years 2000-2005. Pick one that I like and that I think is somewhat relevant to the marketplace in 2011. Then build it.
If my approach sounds somewhat simplistic it is, but at the same time I think it’s a much sounder strategy than simply relying solely on one person’s vision of the future. Visions of the future are notoriously unreliable and generally highly self indulgent. There’s nothing that makes me groan more (other than eating a kebab at 2am in the morning) than seeing headlines such as “Bank unveils prototype for checking account of the future” or “Watch our seminar to see what the future of the book will be”. Nobody knows what the future of “anything” looks like and to claim otherwise is extremely misleading. Humans are erratic and unpredictable creatures that often defy all logic and reason, which is why a website containing pictures of cats with poorly spelled “amusing” captions never featured on anybody’s “Future of….” presentation.
So forget the future, look at the past. Look at real products that people launched and then figure out why they failed. Was it a product problem? A marketing problem? Was the technology needed to support that idea not quite mature enough? Was it just plain bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Other people’s failures should be your inspiration, not yet-to-be conceived successes. We all like to think of ourselves as visionaries, but we’re not. Over 99% of “experts” in all areas of life are completely inaccurate with their predictions but for whatever reason – probably because they continue to talk us into submission – we allow them to keep using the label of “expert” or “guru” or “advisor”. So relying on visions of the future is pointless.
But the past is interesting. As we all know execution is really hard and is the reason why most companies fail. So figuring out how to execute BETTER on an idea that failed is a really smart strategy for any product person.
Let’s look at the landscape right now and see how this idea holds up. First there was Facebook…..a brilliant, stroke of genius from Mark Zuckerberg. Well yes, but first there was MySpace (which we all know) and then before that a little-known site in the UK called Friends Reunited which launched in 2000, a full 4 years before Facebook. Groupon and Living Social are going great guns in the group buying space, but back in 2000 a company called Mercata was doing something very similar. It eventually shut its doors in 2001. personalisation is currently a hot topic in the digital space, with brands experimenting with ways to offer more and more targeted content to their users. But this is something that the likes of Yahoo were dabbling with back in 2001, but the technology just wasn’t mature enough to make it a viable proposition. And the list goes on.
Life is built on a few good ideas and millions of knock-offs, and that extends well beyond the do-it-yourself carbonated beverages industry. It’s not that humans aren’t all that creative, but it’s just with billions of us now in existence and connected via rapid communications channels the concept of true originality isn’t as relevant anymore. As the famous quote goes:”Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it.”. Don’t be afraid to look to the past for inspiration. Some of the best ideas you’ve never had are waiting there for you.