Every engineer dreams of building his/her own product. Most ideas don’t progress any further, either because it was idle thinking, or on further reflection, they become less interesting. When a concept refuses to die, and you feel driven to explore it further, then some basic analysis must follow. What problem does it solve? Who benefits from the solution? Can you quantify its impact on the beneficiaries?
Ideas emanate in a number of ways. They can be a solution to problems that you observed at work or elsewhere. Perhaps you have spotted new opportunities arising from evolution or disruptive change in technology, environment or circumstances. For example, the advent of the PC, internet, and broadband connectivity over the past three decades, led to software that provided unique new functionality (e-mail, internet chat) or simply a new and better way of doing old things (online purchases).
Many companies have succeeded by catching a new technology curve early, and overcoming existing players (Microsoft with PC operating system, Novell with networking, Hotmail with internet mail, and recently SalesForce.com with SaaS).
Responsiveness to technology shifts is not an attribute of only small companies. IBM, for instance, has adapted to several generational changes in hardware and software. After its formal naming in 1924, IBM has seen competitors appear and fade away in the punched card, mainframe, minicomputer, PC, networking and the internet eras. Through them all, it has remained the No.1 technology company by re-inventing itself.
In comparison, here is what the CEO (Ken Olson) of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a mini-computer vendor and strong IBM competitor, had to say in 1977, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home”.
Not surprisingly, DEC was eventually over-run by the PC revolution. IBM, on the other hand, launched its PC in 1981, and tied up with Intel and Micro- soft, to emerge stronger.
Your generic idea should be transformed into a rough product concept. Entrepreneurs should have sufficient domain and technical expertise to conceptualize how the idea, combined with its practical implementation, can address specific user or industry challenges. You can then, scope the problem and formulate a distinct and bounded solution.
The next step is to explore who your customers will be. At the most basic level, the product should provide a good solution to a known problem for a reasonably large set of people. The product may enhance a capability (what it can do), process (how to do it), performance (speed of doing it), or usability (ease of use) relative to the current methods. It must be reasonably unique and fairly difficult for someone else to quickly emulate.
Ideas don’t have to be unique to be successful. Excel overtook Lotus 1-2-3, the leading DOS spreadsheet, only because Lotus failed to make the transition to Windows quickly.
Sometimes, leaders don’t recognize disruptive changes. In a 1998 paper, Google’s founders described an innovative concept called PageRank, which took advantage of the Web’s link structure to produce a global importance ranking of every web page. This helped users quickly make sense of the vast heterogeneity of the World Wide Web. AltaVista, the leading search engine amongst 30+ others at the time, turned down the chance to buy Google for $1 million, saying spam would make PageRank useless. Yahoo also declined to purchase Google, supposedly because they didn’t want to focus on search, which they felt only sent users away from Yahoo.com.
Size also does not guarantee success. After their search engine and Gmail made Google into a challenger to Microsoft, they attempted to target Microsoft’s cash cow (MS-Office) with an online spreadsheet in 2006. Analysts expected this to eat into Excel (and Office) market share, but the latter continues to dominate. Still, in 2009, this competition forced Microsoft into announcing a future online, free version of MS-Office.
Ideas are like movie scripts. Most of them sound familiar. They are often a combination of previously seen sub-plots, with new twists added. Still, many of them become successful, especially if they have some novelty and are executed well. Even remakes succeed if presented differently. Very rarely do you see a hit movie with a truly unique script.