Everything is Derivative

Everything is Derivative

Over the past three months, I’ve talked and worked with a lot of smart, talented and motivated entrepreneurs-in-the-making who all get hung up on some variation of the same issue.

The problem is usually described like this: “I can’t decide what my business should be about. Every topic is already covered by someone else. How can I create something real and unique and not derivative?

This causes some serious stress and anxiety in entrepreneurs. There’s the feeling that your business has to be built on some new monumental breakthrough concept to succeed. It’s a sticking point that some people never get past, which makes sense if you’re truly looking for an original idea.

You could spend your entire life looking for an original idea. The truth is, they don’t exist. Every idea is derivative.

And this is why so many entrepreneurs get stuck. They operate under the assumption that the best business opportunities lie in those built on completely original ideas. Then they enter into the cycle of “think of a business idea, research the competition, find something remarkably similar to your ‘original idea,’ get discouraged, head back to the drawing board.”

A breakthrough can only happen when you realize that 1) ideas are all derivative in some way or another, and 2) you don’t need a completely original idea to succeed in business.

The biggest businesses in the world were built on derivative ideas.

Think about some of the biggest business successes of the past two generations. Were they built on completely original ideas, or were they derivative ideas? Just look at all of Apple’s products, for example. The Mac? It wasn’t the first personal computer. The iPod? It wasn’t the first personal digital music player. The iPhone? It wasn’t the first smartphone. (Some Apple fanboys might not remember it that way, but it’s true).

What about Microsoft? The MS-DOS operating system? It wasn’t the first operating system for personal computers. Windows? It wasn’t the first graphical operating system. Excel and Word? They weren’t the first spreadsheet or word processor.

We could go on and on here, with example after example of wildly successful businesses that were built on obviously derivative ideas. Google, Facebook, Pepsi, Walmart. Lady Gaga.

Sure, there are plenty of ideas that have never been executed on before. The Segway was a pretty original product, but it wasn’t a completely original idea. The Segway was actually based on a self-balancing wheelchair that Dean Kamen had already built.

Ideas that have never been brought to life before carry a lot of risk. There are too many unknowns, too much research and development required, too much consumer education and too much hunting for customers required. If you’re going to develop an idea like that, you’d better have deep pockets or patient investors.

For our purposes, we’re not talking about creating the next Segway or Microsoft though, right? If you’re reading this blog, I’ll assume you want to create something that supports your lifestyle or your family and makes a positive contribution to the world without so much risk.

In that case, you shouldn’t worry about whether your idea is derivative. Just accept that it will be derivative in some ways. Accept that potentially dozens of other people are working on the same basic idea somewhere in the world. The important thing is how you make your idea appealing to your potential customers.

To do that, start with a proven business idea and layer on some unique aspects. Innovate. Serve a specific target audience and tailor everything to it. Combine two things that haven’t been combined before. Or, inject your personality and you’ll guarantee your business is unique (there is only one you).

For example, take minimalism and apply it to business. Take travel and combine it with changing the world. Take a design studio and bare your soul to your customers. Everett Bogue, Chris Guillebeau and Sarah J. Bray each took an existing idea (minimalism, travel, design) and made it their own. They each have wildly successful small businesses, and no “monumental breakthrough idea” was required. They each understood how to create a unique selling proposition.

Innovation drives business, and innovation is an incremental process. You take something that exists and push it a little further. The goal of innovation is positive change, to make someone or something better, and the easiest way to do that is to improve upon an existing idea.

Maybe you’re worried about adding value, creating something genuine, and not just adding to the “noise” out there. Then take a stand, pursue your passions, be a leader, inspire people. There is value in that. Experiences matter in life more than possessions. Give your customers an experience they’ll never forget.

Other factors are just as important as the originality of your idea.

Creating a unique selling proposition is only one of many factors that will determine if your business succeeds or fails.

Just as important is whether you do something you’re passionate about, and something you’re good at. Without passion, you might not put in the effort required to succeed. Without being truly good at what you do, you won’t be able to provide a standout return on investment to your customers.

Your business success also depends on whether people are willing to pay for your products or services. By improving on an existing and proven product or service idea, you’ll already know that people will pay for it.

If you start by creating something that has never been offered before (think Segway again), you won’t really know if people will want to buy it until you’ve invested lots of hard work and money into development.

The naysayers will say otherwise.

The common beliefs about invention and business ideas will lead some people around you to tell you you’re going to fail. They’ll say, “that’s already been done before. Why would someone pay you to do that when XX already does it?”

Don’t listen to the people around you who have never tried. Learn from those who have succeeded.

And remember, failure is part of the process.

I’ve started plenty of businesses that failed, but those failures were just part of what it took for me to succeed. It was part of my journey, and I’m happy to have gone through it. There will be plenty more failures in my future, and I say bring 'em on.

Most of my failures started with misunderstanding what a viable idea really is.

I’ve done things that were too derivative and didn’t answer the question “why should I buy from you?” I’ve also tried to build ideas that had never been successfully brought to life before, only to spend years of many peoples’ time and millions of investment dollars to find out that people wouldn’t pay for what we thought was a breakthrough idea. It was heartbreaking.

But, I persevered. I kept trying. I tuned out the naysayers. And eventually I learned how to use business ideas that work for me.

Now I have a growing little lifestyle business and I get to do things I love every day. The products and services I release aren’t built on radically new ideas, but I’ve made sure the offerings are unique, that they solve direct problems and that they provide enormous value to my customers.

What more could I ask for? I get to work with the people I’m passionate about helping: smart, motivated individuals who want to experience the ultimate in personal freedom through a successful lifestyle business. I’m just glad I finally figured out that’s what I want to do and that it wouldn’t require a revolutionary business idea to get there.

How do you turn an idea into a viable business?

I’d love to hear how you innovate on existing ideas to create business opportunities. Please share in the comments!

photo by James Jordan

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Hi, I’m Corbett Barr. I’ve been writing here since 2009. Join my email list for new articles about supporting yourself doing something you love: