Beyond the bucks

  • Success sometimes requires having the faith to look past the bottomline
  • The question to ask is: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

Beyond the bucksI AM sometimes asked by entrepreneurs for input on what their next venture should be or whether their current idea has legs.
I confess I am always more than a little stressed out at having to answer such questions.

For while my job entails keeping track of what’s happening in the tech startup space and the wider technology scene, knowing what’s happening doesn’t mean I’ll know what will happen next.
I do my best to answer queries with what I know and while I don’t think it’s much help, I do understand that sometimes one just needs a sounding board in that quest for clarity.
If there’s one thing talking to these founders has done, it is to make me realise that it’s almost the same conversation every time.
The discussion will centre on what already exists in the market, what’s missing, the potential market for a particular service or product, and whether the differentiators put in place will be enough to garner a share.
I quite enjoy these discussions, as they are great thought exercises and create greater empathy for the beat I cover. However, I can’t help but think that every conversation leaves one thing unasked: Are you any good?
Whenever I end with the words, “Well, it all depends on how good you can make it” or, “Well, how sure are you that you can build something to rival the big boys?” – I get shy smiles and nods with minimal eye contact, making my guess as good as the public’s as to whether they’ve got the goods to back up a bold vision.
Call it the Asian cultural penchant for humility and modesty over individual chest-thumping, but I don’t often meet a local founder who will confidently look me in the eye and say, “Yes, because I am that good.”
Granted I have met a handful from the other side of the spectrum – extremely confident their current project will reshape the world as we know it, and not afraid to shout about it – but today’s column isn’t about those guys. It’s for those who are unsure.
Before a startup even gets to the growth phase of its lifecycle where marketing dollars, savvy communications and community support become the preferred tools for growth, there’s the building of the thing itself.
There’s an oft-chanted phrase that goes: “You don’t need to be the first, you just have to be the best.”
Google wasn’t the first search engine, the iPhone not the first smartphone, nor Facebook the first social network.
Beyond the bucksBut they were the first of their categories to hit upon that seemingly magical formula combining a sound product, great user experience, and market timing.
Call what I’m about to say idealistic or divorced from the realities of the funding, talent or market demands that exist in our part of the world, but if there’s one thing I’d like to say to any founders reading this, it is: Stop thinking about the money.
Every pundit, investor or startup veteran will ask you the same question: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

There are many problems out there to be solved, and for every problem, there are dozens of guys already seeking to solve it.
Why are you solving it? Is it because you see enough gaps in the market to make money even if it’s not the best solution?
Is it because existing clients have asked you to do it and you’re thinking there will be easy money to be had by tapping that need?
They’re not bad reasons. But the storyteller part of me wishes these responses didn’t dominate interviews.
Consumer-facing startups complain that it’s a challenge fighting global brands with big marketing dollars in a market unfriendly to local creations.
Business-facing startups argue that it’s an uphill task trying to convince corporations to sign up for their solution over blue-chip vendors with pedigree.
You can bring in marketing specialists, customer support teams, and build corporate relationships over time with grit, gumption and a dash of luck. Those are battles that can be fought, and even if you lose a couple, their outcomes won’t always determine who wins the war.
But all that doesn’t matter if your product, frankly, sucks.
Because the cold harsh truth is that all businesses exist to make money, and your startup is no different in that regard.
You can’t hide that cold gleam of calculation from anyone, even when using pre-approved marketing-speak that ties your venture to some larger noble cause to make it more palatable.
First and foremost, the product is the only thing that should matter, and you should be convincing people it is the far superior option.
And convincing people is a whole lot easier when you know yourself it is indeed the best.
It’s a global marketplace now, so do you have what it takes to compete? Never mind beating the Ivy League graduates – the beauty of technology is that its biggest successes have largely been the creations of self-taught individuals with drive.
Tell me you think your solution is going to succeed because you’ve seen everything else out there and you know you can do better.
Tell me that it’s going to be one of the best products out there because you and your technical founder have the chops to make it so.
Tell me you are going to do the venture because you believe you’ve got the best solution and you don’t bloody well care what I think.
To quote Y Combinator’s Paul Graham: “It’s harmless if reporters and know-it-alls dismiss your startup. They always get things wrong. It’s even okay if investors dismiss your startup; they’ll change their minds when they see growth.”
So that’s my message for today: Stop thinking about whether it’ll make money before you even build something; have some faith that if you’ve built the best, it will.
This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.
Related Stories:
Don't be too much in love with your idea
Minimum viable crap and cardboard cutouts
Richard Branson on how to take on Goliath
Advice from the shadows

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