When we come up with an idea, we’re super excited and think it’s original.
Then after a couple conversations and a Google search, we discover that it’s already been done! By someone bigger, better, and with more resources than us.
So what do we do? We tell ourselves, “Why even bother? We’ll just end up looking like a copy cat!” And then we give up.
But what if there’s still room for improvement? What if there are people who are still in need that aren’t getting what they want?
Back in 2005, I told my dad about a startup I had just named called Mint.com, and I’d soon be joining it. It was going to help people with their personal finances.
He was quick to respond, “Why are you working on this? It already exists. Intuit has a product called Quicken.”
Sure Quicken existed, but it was shrink-wrapped software that came on a CD. After you unwrapped it, you had to spend time installing it, and then hours setting it up, so it could then tell you how much money you made and spent.
Who has time for that?
Turns out, nobody.
Our hypothesis was that Millennials who were comfortable with online banking and e-commerce would want a SaaS (software as a service) product that would do the work of managing their money for them.
Of course, we weren’t the first to market. Heck we weren’t even the second! We had a number of competitors launch right way ahead of us and right after us like Wesabe and Geezeo. Even Intuit our biggest competitor launched a very similar product called Quicken Online. They had more money, resources, brand awareness, and market share.
While it worried us, we stuck to what we believed would add value: doing all the heavy lifting for our customers by automatically downloading all their financial transactions and organizing them. Then finding customers who wanted that.
Turns out our hypothesis was right, and we were acquired in 2009 by Intuit, our formidable competitor!
We weren’t the only ones who were copying existing products. Facebook wasn’t the first social network, and Google wasn’t the first search engine.
In 2015, I decided it was time to be a copycat again. Only this time I wasn’t going to focus on software. I was going to help people with their public speaking skills.
Sure Toastmasters, Dale Carnegie, and lots of speaking coaches already exist. But it didn’t stop me because I wanted to focus on one particular group: techies. I wanted to show them how valuable speaking could be for their career and address their concerns around it.
Since there was a lot of competition in the space, I decided to co-author and self-publish the book Present! A Techie’s Guide To Public Speaking.
When you’re just getting started, your product will have similar benefits to what is already out there. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, familiarity is important, because people are resistant to change.
If your product is too different, people will feel like they need to change their behavior and learn how to use it. That means it requires effort. Effort causes friction, and friction makes adoption a challenge.
People may also question the need to use it at all.
In this post, I mention how the company Olark, decided to design their live chat product to look very similar to Google’s GChat product because the experience was familiar. It’s just like another product they are already using, so they are more likely to adopt it.
Eventually, you need to stand out otherwise you’ll end up commoditizing your product. The way to stand out is to take the time to understand how the existing products and substitutes aren’t serving people.
Too often people think differentiation boils down to the product. So they wind up spending all their time creating additional features. But you can differentiate based on other things like branding, customer support, or addressing the acute needs of a particular customer segment like I did with my book Present!
The absence of features is also a way to differentiate. Think of all the point-tools out there that have a specific function and do nothing else. I’d much rather cut onions with my Santoku knife than a swiss army any day!
Read through reviews on Amazon, and you’ll see people who weren’t happy with an existing product.
Of course, there are some customers who just like to complain, but there are others who are severely underserved. They might be underserved because of the price point or the product just doesn’t address their use case. And competitors may decide they just don’t care enough to service that group because they won’t turn a profit, they just don’t get that particular customer segment, and they have enough customers who are willing to adopt and pay for the product they’ve already created. They’ve got a good thing going on, and their mantra becomes, “If it ain’t broken don’t fix it.”
But something is broken! Their product. It’s not addressing the needs and it’s neglecting a customer segment. Over time that neglect becomes an opportunity for someone else to enter the space and serve that customer segment. Someone like YOU!
And if the company has questionable practices when it comes to customer support, employee treatment, or product quality, then competition is the best way to highlight those and keep them in check!
Congratulations! You were worth copying ;)
If your idea is any good someone will end up copying you. You can file a trademark, patent, and try your best to protect your IP. However, the best protection is to stay ahead of them by taking the time to understand who you are serving, addressing their needs consistently, and recruiting and retaining a team who can execute to serve those customers.
Is your product idea is similar to others out there? How are you thinking about differentiating it? Let me know in the comments below!
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