If the Foundation's Bad, a New Coat of Paint Isn't Going to Help
The world needs another location-based service like I need another hole in my head. Yet as the entire industry gears up for SXSW, another Foursquare-on-steroids application is surely launching, hoping to gain enough customers during the popular festival to justify the months (or years) that went into building the service. All of these services are built on the same foundation, differentiating themselves with a window view or a different color paint, and they're all missing the point.
If customers are willing to give a new service a shot, it's for two reasons: First, humans suffer from an almost crippling case of curiosity, no matter how many times we're told how lethal that particular trait is to felines. Second, humans are also restless, and when they become unhappy with the service they're currently using, they hope that a new one will solve their problems.
Any company interested in making money and gaining traction has to be damned good at that second part. I'll check out a service for any number of reasons, whether it's a powerful new featureset or a refreshing new take on user interface design, but I'm only going to stay if that service fills a hole in my workflow that's been in need of patching. No amount of initial curiosity is going to make a service stand out if there isn't a compelling reason for continued use.
Nobody has ever heard a realtor recommend that they paint their walls instead of buying a new house. This isn't in the realtor's or the customer's best interest, so that step is skipped entirely. The realtor knows that they can stand to make a decent commission off of whatever house they manage to sell the disgruntled homeowner, and the customer has probably done all that they can to try and be happy with their current home. Instead of working to make a homeowner happy with their current living arrangement and realtor worth their salt is going to immediately schedule an appointment and do their best to show off new properties.
A startup's job is to act as architect, designer, and realtor. It's up to each startup to build their product, make sure it's usable in the long term, and then sell the shit out of it. In some instances that's going to require showing someone something similar to what they're already working with, but most of the time it's best to head in a completely different direction.
Unfortunately, it's hard to sell something that doesn't have a compelling baseline. Someone may be willing to move into a new place despite the current color of the bedroom curtains, as those can be easily fixed; it's much harder to decide to buy a place when the ceilings are too low and the doorframes aren't wide enough to accomodate a small child. Without the strong structural foundation no amount of gloss is going to attract long-term, profitable customers.
How many products have tried to 'fix' email without building their own system? How many applications have cropped up over the years trying to take the appeal of Instagram and tweak it just the tiniest amount, to little success? The number in both instances is too high for me to sit there and attempt to figure out, so we're going to stick with the completely scientific amount of "a lot." They all tried to build off of an existing foundation, and very few of them have found success. Despite this trend each new service builds upon something that was built by another company, whether that's reading from one of Google's many APIs or piggybacking off of the efforts made by a competitor.
None of this is to say that a company can't become successful by building off of another company's platform; there are plenty of applications and services that have become popular because they offer a compelling new way to access an existing service. One doesn't have to look much further than all of the Twitter clients that have sprung up for every platform to see that a new application can build off of an existing service and still be successful. The problem arises when a user has an issue with the foundation itself, and doesn't want to add features to what they already consider broken.
Then there's the other issue of building a service on top of another company's foundation: you have no control over where that foundation may go. Every single Twitter client could be made defunct tomorrow if Twitter were to close off all of their APIs, and with that one change a whole category of product has been wiped off of the board. Even Zynga has chosen to start building their own foundation (Zynga.com) after relying on Facebook for so long, and it's easy to see why: when a service is building off of another company's foundation they're at that company's mercy, and that's enough to scare the shit out of anyone that is hoping to stay in this game and turn a profit.
Consider RSS readers. So many of them use Google Reader for their backend, and it's easy to see why; Google has already gone to the trouble of creating a strong, stable RSS reading solution that is just begging to be built upon. Chances are high that a new RSS reader that uses Google Reader for synchronization and population will gain some traction, but each and every customer that uses that service will be doing so because they're already content with Google Reader. What happens, then, when someone wants to find an alternative to Google Reader? If all of the applications that they can find are using Google's product, the answer is 'nothing'.
There are huge markets for new foundations, whether it's building an RSS reading system that doesn't utilize Google's code or building an email service that is fundamentally different in terms of looks and function.
Building a new foundation is hard; there's a reason why so many companies have avoided this essential task. The process is long and strenuous enough already, without having to erase the progress that another company has made. Frankly, though, that's what it may take to gain significant traction in this industry; as good as everything is, it's all just begging to be burned down and re-built in a different way.
Go ahead, then. Build something that isn't fundamentally similar to anything else that's out there. Start laying the foundation that other companies can build upon, instead of adding just another storey to an existing building. If you want to build something better than the Eiffel Tower, it might be best to burn that hunk of metal to the ground and start fresh.
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