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For Startups, Necessity is the Mother of Invention

by Todd Edman, CEO

This is the first of 3-part series on challenges faced by startups and the innovations that drive them.

Starting a successful small business is a challenging endeavor. The hope for this series is to identify the biggest problems faced by startups and offer some pragmatic and useful advice. Part one deals with identifying the need for your business to fill. Part two contains advice on getting to know who your buyers are, and part three is all about growing your business once you get a foothold.

You need to be a problem-solver.

One of the biggest challenges for a start-up is to determine if the product or service that they've invented solves a problem for the buyer or if it's just a cool thing. History has shown that the most successful products offer solutions to common problems.

Sometimes it works to put your idea before a need... if you can afford it.

Take the Post-It note, now ubiquitous in offices around the world. In 1968, 3M chemist Spencer Silver invented a low-tack adhesive for which nobody could find an application for years... until someone else at the company found the stuff was a great way to keep his bookmarks from slipping. The first Post-It notes hit stores in 1980. The rest, as they say, is history. In hindsight, we see the simple brilliance of inventions like the Post-It note as obvious.

This just goes to show that while great ideas are important for new businesses, they absolutely must be backed up by an identifiable consumer need. By the time 3M invented the Post-It note, they had been a chemical giant for decades, having already invented and profited from products like masking tape and waterproof sandpaper. The company could afford to engage in research that took 12 years to coalesce into a marketable product... Startups do not share that luxury.

The most reliably successful startups identify their need first.

Take an example with a much different trajectory than the Post-It note: In the 1970's, determined to live a car-free lifestyle, a young man named Alan Scholz needed a durable bike trailer to transport his young daughter around town and haul groceries— so he built one. Seeing his invention, other people started asking Scholz to build them trailers as well. Eventually, bike shops in Eugene started to carry the trailers, now named "Burley." The business continued to grow, and now Burley is the world leader in bike trailers.

Scholz identified his need first, found there was a market, and tested and refined his idea as he built his business. You might not become an overnight billionaire with this process, but it is by far the most likely to be successful.

Yes, there are outliers, but the odds are not good.

Sometimes, a neat idea comes along and satisfies a demand that was previously unknown or little understood —take Facebook for example, which had its origins as a way for college students to connect on the internet— but every Facebook rises over a pile of a thousand dead tech startups. Tinkering with a cool idea, crossing your fingers, and hoping that you become the next Zuckerberg is not, as you may have guessed, the best business strategy.

I've identified a need and I have an idea ... what next?

You need to look at the market, and think long and hard about who, exactly, will be paying for your product or service— it might not be who you think. In part two of this blog, I'll discuss getting to know your buyer.

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