Single miracle startup

A common piece of startup wisdom is that you should go for a “single miracle startup”. If your startup requires no miracle at all to happen you’re probably aiming too low. If your startup requires multiple miracles to happen then failure is almost certain. A single miracle startup hits the sweet spot.

Why is it a bad idea to start a zero miracle startup? Suppose you decide to clone a simple but moderately successful B2B web product. This doesn’t require any miracles to happen. If the product is basic then cloning it shouldn’t even be difficult. Then it’s just a matter of finding customers and improving your product. As your product gets better you’ll get more customers, and as your marketing gets better you’ll get more leads. You can grind it out this way. It takes a long time, but you’ll get there eventually. A market that has a number of profitable businesses can always support one more, after all.

A big problem is that if your product and your business model are entirely derivative that any kind of runaway success is unlikely. It’s hard to get good press if your product is uninspired. Word of mouth can be one of your strongest assets, but the enthusiastic early adopters have already tried the original. They’ll pass on your clone. Those are pretty serious headwinds.

The odds that your clone will be more popular and more successful than the original are not good. Which means that your success has a ceiling. A pretty low one. You could clone a very successful product, but that’s way harder. If your product is just like Slack, but substantially worse and unfinished, who in their right mind will buy it?

You want to make your product different and therefore better at least in one dimension. You can make your product way faster, and distinguish yourself that way. Or you can make your product super easy to use. Or very pretty. Or integrate heavily with a popular platform and then your product will be the best X for users on platform Y. Any of these are better than straight-up cloning a product, but it’s still not optimal. You want to be so different that there’s a pretty good chance your product flops completely.

If you take some big product risks and it turns out there is an audience for it, then your product could create a new niche overnight. Your product will be the only one that meets a formerly unmet need, and that’s a big tailwind. This requires a miracle, but only a small one. It means that you don’t have to fight as hard to win unhappy customers from competitors. You’ll still need to do marketing, of course. People have to know your product exists.

We live in a huge and diverse world. Even wacky products end up with many devoted fans. By taking a seemingly riskier route, by making a product that is a little bit “out there”, you actually get better odds of success.

You can follow us on Twitter @jdvhouten and @wcools and look for #80daystartup

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