One day, you’re going about your life—walking around, brushing your teeth, staring at the sky—and BOOM. It hits you. A totally unique, new, wild, business idea. You’re certain no one has ever done it before, and a quick internet search confirms your hunch. Finally, you may think, I’ve found my million dollar idea! A life of riches awaits!
An alternate scenario: You’re sick of your job, your life, your place in the world. You want to work for yourself. So you read all the books, take all the quizzes, watch all the videos. You diligently write out a long (long, long) list of business ideas you feel qualified for or interested in. Except…well, they all feel kind of common. Not boring, exactly, but like someone else is already doing them. How will your business succeed if someone else has already had the same idea?
Which leads us to the question:
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Short answer: No. Slightly longer answer: Heck no.
There are a number of reasons why you don’t need a totally unique business idea to run a successful business.
For example, sometimes there’s a reason a business doesn’t exist. Someone may have thought of it, tested it out, and failed. It may not fit within a category customers understood, causing it to be overlooked. Or it fails to address the real need or concern consumers want a solution for.
Another example—not all ideas are good ideas. Sometimes when you sit down and start working out a strategy on paper, it becomes clear that there’s no way to make money at it. Or that it will cause too many problems for the potential payoff. It looks good at a distance, but close up, there are too many flaws.
A third example is that maybe it is a good idea, but it’s just before its time, or behind the trend curve. Maybe it could be brilliant once a certain new technology is widely adopted. Or maybe it depends on a technology that people are abandoning, and it’s just a matter of time until your idea is obsolete.
It’s less important why a totally unique business idea may not work, and it’s more important to understand how new ideas fit within our existing culture.
My background is in writing. So I was that kid going to the library every day on summer breaks, reading like my life depended on it. And at some point, as I began writing myself, I remember hearing the idea that there are only so many plot ideas in the world, and that number was small.
Seven. There are only seven kinds of plots.
That’s according to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. He writes that every story in the world and throughout history can be put into one (or more) of the following categories:
The Quest? Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Rags to Riches? Cinderella, Overboard, Jane Eyre, The Ugly Duckling. Rebirth? Beauty and the Beast, Groundhog Day, that silly side plot in True Blood when Vampire Eric lost his memory and turned into a teddy bear for a bunch of episodes.
So why am I telling you this? What does it have to do with business? Because if every story is one of only seven plots, and there are millions upon millions of books people love, then you can easily see how you don’t need to be unique to reach people
Think about it. People love Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And they also love the musical, West Side Story—which is based on Romeo and Juliet. The time, place and characters are different… But the plot is the same. Two groups of people hate each other, and then a girl from one and a boy from the other fall in love, with horrible consequences. (Tragedy.)
Clueless is a modern classic. A woman tries her hand at matchmaking, fails, gets humbled, and falls in love with her former step-brother. Just like how in Jane Austen’s Emma, a woman tries her hand at matchmaking, fails, gets humbled and falls in love with her brother-in-law. (Comedy, and Rebirth.) But just because Clueless is based on Emma doesn’t mean we love it any less. Because Amy Heckerling set it in the 90s and made it modern and relevant and fun as hell.
Taxis existed before Uber. Food delivery existed before DoorDash. Blockbuster existed before Netflix. And MySpace existed before Facebook.
Regardless of what you feel about any of those businesses, Uber, DoorDash, Netflix and Facebook, they didn’t invent the wheel. They took an existing business model—paying for a ride, getting food sent to your house, watching movies at home and staying connected with friends and family—and did it in a new way.
And it works for two reasons. One is that people are already familiar with the business model. So if you said to someone in 2005, “I’m starting a company where we rent movies to people,” they would know what you were talking about. But it’s the next part, “People can rent movies by mail” (in 2006) or “People can press a button on their remote control and watch any movie they want” (present day), that hooked people.
When people don’t know what a business is or how it works, it’s a hundred times harder to get them onboard. Totally unique business ideas are a lot of work. First, you have to explain what you do. Then, you have to tell them why it’s worth taking a chance on. By the time you get to gauging their interest, they’ve already stopped paying attention.
Do you know how long it took for cell phones to catch on? The first commercially available mobile phone came out in 1983, to say nothing of all the technology that predated it. In the 80s, the only people who had cell phones were Wall Street movie villains and Hollywood producers.
And even at the turn of the millennium, most of us didn’t yet have cell phones. People would laugh at the idea of needing a way to be contacted every minute of the day. We had things called plans and schedules and answering machines. I remember joking in high school, “Why would I need a cell phone? I’m not a drug dealer.” (Look, I was wrong. And no shade to drug dealers.) I didn’t get my own cell phone until 2002-ish, nearly 20 years after the first cell phone was sold.
And even though we embrace them today, do you have 20 years to spend trying to convince people to give your business a shot?
When they were first starting out, they had a really hard time raising money for their business. Investors didn’t seem to get it. Or if they got the idea, they didn’t believe in them.
Until another company with the same idea made it big. Enter Brandless: a company that makes healthy, easy-to-access products with minimal branding.
Suddenly, raising capital got a lot easier once Public Goods could point at Brandless’s success. Because investors could see that their idea was a model that could succeed. Six years and more than $15 million in Series A funding later, Public Goods is thriving, with over 300 distinctive products for sale. (Brandless shut down in February 2020, only to be revived by new leadership less than six months later.)
But, how can two identical businesses thrive, side-by-side? It happens all the time. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. make colas. I don’t know if I could tell them apart in a blind taste test. But if a waitress asks me if Pepsi is okay when I ordered a Coke? Suddenly, I’m a ride-or-die for Coca-Cola.
I hope I’ve been able to illustrate one main point. You do NOT need a totally unique business idea (or any kind of idea) to be successful.
You just need a good idea. Make it easy to explain. And easy for people to understand. Make it slightly different than what other people are doing, when it comes to design or pricing or your niche. Better yet, test your idea among the kind of people you want to attract. See if they get it, if they like it, if they feel like it’s something for a person like them.
Make your West Side Story as good as Romeo and Juliet.
And make your Public Goods as good lucrative for investors as Brandless.
Make people love your business as much as they love Coke or Pepsi, so that they’ll believe no one else can give them what they need as good as you can.
Just go out there and make your legacy.
I’ve spent 16 years in advertising, and now I’m using that knowledge to help creatives grow their own small businesses. Will that include you this year?
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