Revolutionary startup ideas fail.
For a while now, I’ve heard people talk and write about their revolutionary ideas for a new business. At best, the term “revolutionary” in a startup business context is a gross exaggeration. How many ideas really come along that are so unique and contrary to the way things are done that they could be considered revolutionary? We’re not talking about social or political upheavals to right a wrong — it’s just a startup idea.
I imagine some of you are thinking, “What’s the big deal, Paul? Using the term revolutionary is a commonly accepted way to describe a business idea that is ground-breaking and great.” I admit that terminology gets distorted in all kinds of ways over time, and it’s not that big of a deal. But this one bugs me, so I’m going to write my article rant anyway :) You can check out a similar rant about “MVP” here.
Assuming the term is here to stay…
So, I realize I won’t convince people to stop using the term revolutionary when talking about startup ideas. But let’s at least apply the term in the most accurate way possible. The first definition of revolutionary I found was on vocabulary.com:
Revolutionary: A revolutionary person fearlessly advocates radical change. Revolutionary people and ideas challenge the status quo and might be violent or willing to upset the natural order to achieve their goals. Like the word revolve, it’s all about turning things around.
OK, so applying this definition properly to a startup business idea, it would go something like this:
A business model which brings about radical change. A product or service that upsets the natural order and turns things around.
This would also mean, that by definition, people wouldn’t understand it. They wouldn’t want it, and they wouldn’t buy it. On top of these behavioral hurdles, there is no infrastructure to support the idea, making it impossible to have a viable business model and turn a profit. We’ve seen this happen in the past, and typically refer to these ideas as “before their time”. These revolutionary ideas are failures. That is, until someone else tries the same thing a significant amount of time later… when it’s no longer such a revolutionary idea.
You don’t have to look very far to find examples of seemingly great ideas which fell flat because they were ahead of their time. In 1998, Kozmo wanted to “revolutionize” the way people get CDs (that was a thing in 1998), books, food, and more. They offered free 1 hr delivery for these products by browsing and ordering on the web (sound familiar?). The startup was well funded and the idea itself had tremendous potential, but people weren’t ready for it:
- No mobile devices to order — phones just made phone calls back then.
- No established gig economy — Kozmo had to provide all the gear to delivery personnel and jump through 1099/employee hoops.
- No easy way to pay — people didn’t trust their CC info on the web!
- Purchasing behaviors — buying habits at the time were based on brick and mortal stores. Consumers just didn’t want to browse things on the web, which was also crazy slow by the way.
There is a great write-up on kozmo.com by Micah Rosenbloom here.
So we can safely say that “revolutionary” ideas are terrible ideas in a startup business context. Who would want to surge forward with an idea that is certain to fail?
But what about past examples of success?
There are none. All past revolutionary startup ideas have failed. Note that a startup idea should not be confused with a vision. All kinds of revolutionary people have a vision of a better life in the future. If this person can determine and execute the non-revolutionary steps to bring the rest of humanity up to speed, I’d call them a visionary. But it still holds true that the business or businesses started along the way cannot be radical steps or a complete turn-around.
In order to have a good business idea (one with a chance to succeed), it must be relatable to people and closer to the status quo. It must be something that people can see themselves purchasing or using. It must be an “evolutionary” idea. There is no exception made for the visionary. This person is only successful if evolutionary steps can be put together in a way that brings people along a journey toward the radical idea.
OK, if a startup has enough runway to operate without a profit for a very long time, I suppose it’s possible to make a revolutionary idea go… But that’s cheating. By the time the idea is accepted, it’s no longer revolutionary. Plus, when you and I apply the “SpaceX business plan” to our startup ideas, there are a lot of holes to say the least. That company has been in existence since 2002 and has yet to realize it’s concept. It has also signed a number of contracts in excess of $1.5B with NASA to make some trips into space on it’s behalf. I just can’t consider that a startup by any normal standard.
So, if you’re one of those people with a “revolutionary” startup idea, you better have a more reasonable evolutionary concept that you’re trying to sell first. Without that step, people will just find your idea revolting.