Imitation, innovation, improvement, indigenisation or problem-solving--what does a good idea need to be, to attain success?
Theory 1. mySpace has been a success. Maybe we can build a better one for India. YouTube resulted in a $1.65 billion acquisition, and it was about video sharing, on a global level. Maybe we should do the same for Indian videos.
Theory 2. YouTube sold for $1.65 billion; it has X million videos and Y million active users. If I tap into the Indian market, and have the same penetration as YouTube did globally, that would be 12.64 per cent of the size of YouTube; hence, worth $208.72 million. Sweet.
Theory 3. If I ran mySpace, I would change it because I am not a fan of its user interface. I think Orkut should allow me to add my re'sume' to my page. I bet I could build a better community by improving the interface.
There are more, but you get the idea. Most of us have such thoughts, and believe that we can build a better mousetrap, because we can imagine it. Well, I've actually acted upon what I imagined, but have to confess that it did not work!
A better mousetrap is the answer. What's the question?
That's a wonderful statement. We have already decided that we want to build a better mousetrap - quite unaware of whether we are capable of building it, or whether we have a team that knows the intricate details of what already exists. Let's pause to mull over: "What's the question?" Before we arrive at the decision that a better mousetrap is the answer, let us figure out what question it is the answer to. Perhaps we will discover that the answer isn't as simple as we imagined.
When I speak with young entrepreneurs, I habitually ask them to re-word their opening statement to me -- something other than the usual, "I have this idea, to one that begins with, So the problem I am trying to solve is ...It's a subtle difference, but an important one.
If we look at a problem, and try and understand what it is, it gives us a perspective on what we are trying to solve.
For example, take the theories at the beginning of this article. What problems do mySpace users in India face? What irks Indian YouTube users?
I am sure you can come up with a couple of answers to each of these questions.
Having identified a problem, we need to determine the answers to some major queries. The first is whether people actually want to have the problem solved. Before we automatically answer 'Yes', there are some follow-on questions: How do we know that? How many people have we talked to? Are there widespread reports of dissatisfaction? Even though users are voicing complaints, are they obviously unhappy with something?
The second major query is: "If the problem was solved, would users be willing to pay for it?"
This question is usually the clincher. We have examples where it didn't matter, like Google's Search, but in most cases, it does.
Last, but not least, is one more test: what would prevent mySpace from doing what we did? What would stop YouTube from serving up an Indian version, with the new feature we introduced to solve the perceived problem?
I am not trying to be discouraging here; I am simply sharing knowledge acquired from successful entrepreneurs who have built great businesses. You may also not always need to have all these answers before you start, but at some stage, you'll have to face up to answering them.
Returning to our metaphorical mousetrap, if we approach the problem as outlined above, it's possible that we'll determine what changes we should make to the mousetrap. It's even more likely, however, that we'll find a different answer: perhaps a sheet of sticky paper that is child-safe, or a device that zaps and stuns mice at a distance of 9 metres. This is because we're no longer asking: "How do we build a better mousetrap," but instead, attempting to solve the stated problem: "I have mice at home."
How do we find the right question to answer?
In my book, ˜How Innovators Connect", I wrote about James Hong, the founder of HotOrNot.com, an entrepreneur the YouTube guys got inspiration from. His response to this query was that he and his friends brainstormed together each week:
A: "Basically, every week we would go to a different cafe for a change of environment. I would usually pick some theme to discuss, and we would just get into talking about it and then start generating ideas. Usually, a small group of three or four people is a healthy size, where you can listen to each other and build on each other's ideas."
I asked him what prompted him to launch a new dating site when there already were match.com and several others in operation.
A: "HotorNot really happened in two stages. At one meeting, we were talking about dating sites. We didn't feel the present crop were effective, and thought that we could maybe apply collaborative filtering technology; it would be interesting if members could take a test where they could say who they liked, and who they did not. And we could then start correlating profiles that certain members liked with those that others liked, and could use that data to show members better/more appealing profiles?
"Then a while later, Jim (my co-founder) and I were talking, and he mentioned that this girl at a party we'd gone to was a 'Perfect 10'. And I said it would be cool if there was a website where you could see if somebody's a 'Perfect 10'. It all blended with our earlier thoughts about the dating site, so we launched it. When the rating site took off, we decided to add the dating component to it because that was our original vision. And that is how we ended up becoming HotOrNot.
We never pre-thought our business model; it was more like, let's add value for our users, make something cool, and eventually someone will pay for it."
James' answer underscores the value of a trusted team, and that ideas are not born in a vacuum. His second point addresses 'living' the idea in our heads, and discussing it objectively why people would use it. HotOrNot, results were huge; they had hundreds of thousands of people using the site in the first couple of months, based only on word of mouth publicity. They had stumbled on a human emotion that everyone could relate to 'vanity' when they allowed people to upload pictures and be judged by others.
James' final point is my last one as well. I have seen start-ups become far more successful when the founders focus on providing the solution to a problem, instead of focusing on financial results. When we deliver value, customers use it, and we wind up with something even better than the 'better mousetrap'.