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Must an idea be unique to be successful?

February 26, 2009

Ever shared a bright business idea with a friend and be told, “But someone did that already. What’s the point?”

Perfectly understandable. We like new things so we believe originality is a must for success.

Well, Pepsi emerged long after Coke did, nobody even heard of Toyota when Ford cornered the automobile market, etc. They didn’t seem bothered that their creations weren’t all that original.

Take a block of shophouses in your typical suburban neighborhood. What do you see? A few cafes, a couple of banks, maybe a couple of pharmacists and convenience stores. All in the same row.

Notice how none of them have anything particularly unique to offer? Pharmacies sell the same brands of medicines. Convenience stores sell the same brands of soda pop and candy bars. Even the coffee shops sell the same thing – coffee and the usual array of noodles. They all seem to be doing ok.

So why do these businesses make it when we’re so sure they wouldn’t?

Because some things more compelling than the excitement of fresh ideas. One of them is called unmet demand.

Unment demand explains why two coffee shops selling the same products can do well in the same row. If one shop can only seat 60 patrons at any time and there are 200 hungry people at peak hour, up comes a 2nd or 3rd shop.

Seriously, you need not be a genius to make a profit. At PJ’s Digital IT Mall, there’s probably 10-20 shops all selling the same things – notebooks, hard disks, thumbdrives, cellphones. Even their prices are the same. These places will continue to attract more of the same shops until there are no longer enough customers to support the business.

Its not sexy but it is the fastest way to make money without cracking one’s head to be original, which is why tons of people are doing it. And people have become millionaires doing it.

Am I saying that uniqueness is irrelevant? Not at all. In fact, when there are too many players chasing after too few customers, originality might be the only thing that can save your skin. Store design, prices, service quality will set you apart from the guy next door. If you’re manufacturing tangible goods like software or gadgets, you’ll have to add product features to be unique.

So it really depends on what your mission is.

If its purely to make money and selling is just a means to an end, then the lack of originality won’t kill you. What’s more important is to pick a spot where demand exceeds supply.

If its to make money with a first-to-market breakthrough product, you can still make money. You just have to add one extra step, that is to pay lots of $$$ to create awareness and make the public excited enough to buy from you first.

Each path has its own risks and rewards.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2009 9:29 am

    I hear that line all the time “Someone has already done it”. Nowadays, I din even bother to ask my friends anymore because they will always say that line. To me, it’s very hard to have a really unique idea. It’s actually easier to steal n modify in way which will attract people to your side.

    And if you really cannot do that, then uniqueness can actually come in many forms – something simple such as unique shop design, name, extremely good service w/o service charges (which is pretty rare), etc

    The thought came up as I chatting with someone about the cult of the Blue Ocean. Its ideas are good but it glosses over an important reality that less than 1 in 100 products out there are really original. The reality is one can thrive very well in a red ocean under certain conditions, as the Low Yats and Digital Malls of the world have proven.

  2. February 27, 2009 9:46 am

    I think the Blue Ocean concept should be looked from a different perspective. Maybe it’s telling people not to come out with original ideas but to focus on the necessary ones …. the things people really want – like IPhone. Get someone’s idea, then minus all the fuss n lousy things, focus on the few IMPORTANT things, and you’ll have an ‘original’ idea 😀

    Yeah, an original idea that’s proven to work will soon be copied. Blue oceans turn red in an extremely short time and capital recovery time lengthens. That was one of the issues I had with blue ocean – sustainability.

  3. February 27, 2009 11:40 am

    It’s still important to be unique, but you need everyone to know you’re unique/popular! What makes a good product great is all about marketing.

    I think the main reason why Apple came out on top in the music player business is because they managed to reach out to the non-geeky ppl in the world and these ppl make up a much bigger market than the geeks!

    Yeah. Effective branding will allow you to protect a niche better and penetrate new audiences as you rightly mentioned. Btw, uniqueness is in the head. It is possible to take 2 products that are physically identical, do a good enough mind job and make them appear completely different. This is why brand strategists make loads of money. 🙂

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