Another One of My Bad Ideas

As most of you likely know I’ve tried getting a startup going about a dozen times over the past two decades. I’d like to think many were good ideas but lacked, I’m not quite sure which, either the courage or the capital to make it happen. My first pitch was back when the first notebook computers we becoming available and I saw a need for an store-and-forward shared calendar and messaging system. No one really saw a need but I’m sure all of them now use Outlook daily.

It is an gross understatement that say the software market has changed over the past two decades. You can build simple web-based applications quite quickly, with little capital and resources. (Notice I didn’t say with NO capital). The fact that the web allows you to deliver it essentially cost-free to a worldwide market makes finding that “killer app” a fool’s quest. You don’t need to find that one essential application for everyone, you can find that useful disposable one that appeals to anyone. And the digital nature of the web allows you to quickly re-cast your messaging and marketing to fit the changing whims of the market.

If I were working on a startup idea right now it would embrace this new reality.

My current “bad idea” would be to identify five to six promising concepts that allow people to collect and share their stuff online. We would focus development to limit the feature set to what can be written and tested within a two-month window so that by the end of the first year you have six distinct products in the market. We would use a low monthly fee or advertiser supported pricing model. And we would aggressively follow what I’m calling my “three R” strategy to make the business work and grow in value. What are the three R’s?

Ride. This one is pretty obvious but if your launch one of you unkiller apps and it starts to get traction, get on that horse and ride it hard. It is my perception that now more than even promotional, online, word-of-mouth marketing makes or breaks a product. If you can capture the imagination of the market you can unseat the leader - Google versus Yahoo! for instance.

Rebrand. I am still dumbfounded why tech companies don’t do this today; but I suppose the egotistical notion that “brand is king” gets in the way. I am not talking about product line extensions like Microsoft Word, then Excel and so on, I’m talking about a distinct and unique brand for every property. The web makes it so simple for a company to take one software product and rebrand and remarket it to a nearly endless segments of the market. Let me give you a somewhat boring example. Suppose you had a simple issue tracking system; one that allowed people to enter, track status and report on a collection of issues. By reusing the same code-base with only slight modifications one would “wrap” and market this one product as (1) bug tracking system for software development shops, (2) maintenance tracking system for apartment complexes, (3) low end call-center tracking system, (4) small group or family “to-do” list … basically any segment of users you can imagine that need to track the status of shared action items. Each rebranding would run in the wild as if the others did not exist. The website design, branding, messaging, look and feel would be customized to the target market and the goal would be to have at least four brands of each product running in the market at one time.

Retire. If a product or re-branded site isn’t cutting it, have the systems in place to know when you’re not achieving your profitability goals and kill it. Too often when you take the “killer app” approach you have to continue to invest more money into making something that isn’t working to work. Using the unkiller app approach you have at least two dozen different products in wild at one time and you can leave an idea for dead and not risk the entire future of the startup.

Essentially the startup I imagine would have no killer app, no long-term plan and would belittle the value of branding. It breaks all the rules of how we have defined what a successful software company should be. But then again, everything about building and selling software has changed; when will startups (and those who fund them) recognize this and change themselves? If you’re a VC and listening between myself and three of my friends we have more than six ideas already. Sounds like a good plan to me but then again, this just might be another one of my bad ideas.