Zombie ideas will hold you back

17/05/2017 - 12:26


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OPINION: Held at Spacecubed earlier this month, Perth’s 10th Startup Weekend brought together some of the brightest minds in startup tech.

Zombie ideas will hold you back
Startup ideas need to solve problems, not revisit past efforts. Photo: Stockphoto

One of the features of each Startup Weekend is the number of ideas that re-emerge, year after year. At every single event, there will be a pitch for some of these ideas.

Whether it’s a better way of finding real estate, a method for jumping the coffee queue, a way of making people more environmentally aware, sharing home-cooked food with strangers, managing the kids’ chores and pocket money, the ‘Uber for this’ or the ‘Airbnb for that’, it’s a long list.

They won’t all turn up at each event, but there are always a few ideas pitched that have appeared many times before.

However, all these ideas are already solved by existing startups out there. Google any of these ideas and you get pages of listings for a variety of startups; search the app store for them and you’ll find a long list of apps to solve them.

So why do new founders pitch these ideas? It’s a curious phenomenon. We also see it in the wider startup ecosystem, the same ideas turning up again and again. New apps launch every month to solve these problems, and then vanish without trace.

While founders often look to solve problems they experience, these founders are usually drawn from a limited cohort of the society – they’re usually well educated, intelligent, curious and affluent. To generalise for the sake of the argument, these people like this drink coffee, own real estate, cook their own food, and care about the environment, so the problems they experience tend to be the same.

The unique ideas tend to come from founders with more diverse backgrounds.

The way humans experience ideas is also to blame. When we get ideas, we tend to fall in love with them. We disregard evidence that the idea won’t work, we argue that existing competition is doing it the wrong way, and we ignore advice from people who know better (in favour of chasing the dream).

One of the things Startup Weekend teaches is that the idea needs to be able to change. It’s common for founders who pitched an idea they love to ignore all the mentors and evidence. They end up pitching the same idea that they started with and then wonder why the judges were so harsh.

Then there’s the App Store’s horrible discovery process. Searching for ‘jump the queue coffee’ gives three apps, but not the most popular local ones. To find them, you have to search by their name. So a new founder with a new idea will struggle to find existing solutions. They’ll think their idea is unique and needs solving.

This reflects with the App Store experience generally. It is no longer enough to put an app on the store and expect the downloads to roll in. Customers will not discover the app via the App Store. A customer who is stuck in a queue for coffee won’t find and download an app and jump the queue. There needs to be some other mechanism driving downloads these days. As usual, word of mouth works best.

The assumption is that, if the previous solution worked, then the new founder would have heard of it. If they’re still experiencing the problem, then the solution must not work. This is logical, but missing the point.

Experienced founders tend to take a different view. This problem is common, so someone must have tried it before. If that solution isn’t well known, why not? Why didn’t they think of finding an app to solve it? Why didn’t their friends tell them about the existing solutions? Do people not need this problem solved? What happened to previous solutions?

Often the answers to these questions reveal that the issue is with the problem itself. Maybe it is not a problem worth solving because it’s merely an annoyance.

Uber solved a very real set of problems with the taxi industry. Dog walking, however, doesn’t have the same set of real problems, so the ‘Uber for dog walking’ is not going to have the same success.

The ‘Airbnb for clothes’ is going to face an insurmountable wall of indifference. There has to be actual pain there for which the business can provide a remedy.

We live comfortable lives. We have millions of solutions for any problems we have, or even minor annoyances. Any pain we experience now is large, serious and existential. We need to look at the big, difficult problems.

If the idea isn’t solving an existential crisis then it might just be a zombie idea – let it rest in peace.


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