Why You Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel to Build a Great Product


Much of the conversation in the startup space is driven by the idea that your only goal should be to put something out into the world that’s truly disruptive or game-changing. If you haven’t created a billionaire dollar tech company that changes the way we live our lives on a fundamental level then you’ve failed. But the truth is that there is so much more to success than some Silicon Valley fantasy.

In this industry, we have a way putting a lot of constraints around what success means. The narrower the criteria, the harder and more ridiculous the path to getting there can be. When we push ourselves to such an extreme and unattainable expectation, we lose sight of the opportunities that are sitting right in front of us.

Not every product is going to change the world. Not every company is going to balloon into the new tech darling that everyone can’t stop writing about. Not every person is going to get lucky enough to transform an idea into a multi-billion dollar business.

The first step is to get comfortable with these harsh realities. The next is to focus on the opportunities that you can realistically achieve given the position that you’re in. A big part of getting there is recognizing that companies don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be successful.

There is an argument to be made that every new innovation has been found — that everything has been done. Those kinds of statements have certainly been made time and again in writing and storytelling where we are seeing more and more content rewritten and rebooted, rather than anything truly new.

The situation may be less dire for startups. It’s certainly a newer space than storytelling which has existed as long as there have been humans. It’s not as though innovation isn’t possible anymore, but neither is it the only path to success.

We’re living in a remix culture now where old ideas are being reformed and retextured every day. A lot of the time it doesn’t work, but often these remixes can provide a new and exciting take that is just as game-changing as something completely new.

Even a company on top of the world like Apple “copies”. They just know how to do it better than anyone else. They understand deeply that most consumers are still looking for familiarity in something new, and they’ve used that philosophy to motivate every decision they make.

Raymond Loewy calls it MAYA or Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. Essentially his point is this: “to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.” In this innovation craze, we’ve lost sight of comfort as a number one design priority. Put another way, we’ve lost sight of the hero of the story and how best to make them happy.

When your prime motivation is to become an overnight success, it’s going to be much harder to build a successful product because a truly great product does something valuable for someone other than yourself. This kind of fundamental realignment of purpose and perspective — where the customer you’re trying to reach is the hero and you are simply their guide and aid — can make a world of difference on its own.

Understand that you stand a better chance of reaching people if you build with their interests in mind, instead of your own. Understand that what your ideal customer wants might not be game-changing and innovative. Finally, understand that no market is winner take all. There is no rush to be the first one to enter the game. Apple gets that, and it’s a huge part of why they’ve been able to carve out so much success year in and year out.

Innovation is great and changing the world is great, but it just one path to sustained success. There are so many other motivations to guide your startup’s journey than achieving Silicon Valley greatness. Start by thinking about how you can make your customer a hero. That strikes me as a more compelling mission to strive toward and a more attainable one too.

— ZK

Ed LynesComment