Build counter examples to software marketing rules


This interesting post 6 Startup Ideas Every Nerd Has presents startup ideas that come up repeatedly when brainstorming; many more “obvious” ideas are presented in the post comments.

Now a likely morale that could be drawn from this repetition (one that came immediately to my mind) is simply to avoid these ideas for your startup. I’ve been thinking about this and I came to the conclusion that this morale is wrong. I try to articulate my reasoning.

P.S.: Elad, the author of the post referred above, does not draw such morale.

Let’s consider some examples of recently successful software that deal with non original topics:

Stackoverflow: there were really a lot of Q&A forum software and services around when they built it.

Balsamiq mockups. Software for wire framing has been around for years, and it was generally much more powerful with respect to Balsamiq when it came out.

Basecamp: A combination of to-do manager, list and project manager must be the most implemented idea in the world.

More examples in the text below.

A different narrative

The explanation for reaching success proposing a non original application is normally attributed to execution – also in the comments of the post linked; one even adds “its all about execution … The harder you work, the luckier you get!” – hmmmmmmmm. But I don’t think that the reason is exclusively that. Excellent execution (notice also the ambiguity of this expression) is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

I believe that these successful applications share a common trait different from excellent execution: they all emerged from a completely original narrative. And this narrative can be found online in full details, in all three cases; here are some examples:

Stackoverflow story: Jeff Atwood has a history of articulated reflections on programming and IT, and has in time posted a detailed story of his original ideas about Q&A. See for example:
http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2008/09/stack-overflow-none-of-us-is-as-dumb-as-all-of-us.html,
http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2008/04/introducing-stackoverflow-com.html
http://blog.stackoverflow.com/
, and more on http://codinghorror.com .

Balsamiq mockups story: Here again the whole story is online, articulated, with well-though, meditated and documented decisions. You could start here:
http://blogs.balsamiq.com/peldi/2008/10/14/personal-whats-your-story-why-start-balsamiq/.
And continue here:
http://blogs.balsamiq.com/peldi/

Basecamp story: Here the narrative is so strong that it didn’t even require great software :-). Find the long and narratively conscious story here: http://37signals.com/svn

In all these cases there is a new narrative that is expressed directly in writings and also indirectly through product features, giving coherence to it all. I’m not just saying to rephrase requirements in terms of narratives: using narratives makes emerge the overall complexity of the task, in many ways that functional list simply miss.

When Steve Jobs presents the iPad, sitting on a couch showing it off, he is creating a narrative, more effective as coming from a contemporary media semi-god. How many tablets have there been before, but not in the same narrative context, and with no great success?

Software is not used in a void, but in the context of changing needs. People come to understand and search different needs that should be modeled by different narratives.

Si parva licet componere magnis, we created and presented Licorize inspired and trying to be faithful to a different narrative from any existing bookmarking service, and I believe that this is why we got such good press. When I started using Delicious for my research and work bookmarking, I soon thought

To me a bookmarking service should be completely different from beginning to end – the information value of a bookmark is not essentially in sharing it online, but is first of all relative to the conceptual context where the bookmark is created.

My narrative of the web worker online life didn’t fit in the ways you can use Delicious.

A different narrative has far reaching consequences: for all the software quoted, the creators adopted original production means, integrating design, production methodologies and communication in new forms.

The point of this post is a simple observation, but giving a structured and coherent narrative structure to your idea, going beyond simplistic marketing models like “having a unique selling proposition” could help in your idea coherence and readability for a wide audience. Reducing your idea analysis and presentation to following marketing bulleted list may simply lead you in a wrong direction.

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The image of “My beautiful laundrette” is a link to Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Beautiful_Laundrette

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