One of the most important questions a founder can ask herself when struck by a new and ambitious business idea is “Whose opportunity is this?”
Often, brilliant technologists will see a technical solution to a problem and start working on it immediately, without taking the time to assess whether or not they actually have an opportunity to succeed. Sometimes, the problem boils down to the old question “is this a feature or a company?” In the early days of the web it was possible for features to evolve into companies. This is still true today, but the bar is much higher and it’s much more likely that you have to design your business to be “full stack” from day one — or be doomed to struggle.
Some industries are just more structurally resistant to outside entrants — any business that is built on content or proprietary, finite inventory usually fits this bill.
Take TV. The experience is broken on so many levels. You’re at the will of a monopoly player who provides both infrastructure, content, and the interface between the two. They decide which channels you’ll get, how you’ll interact with them, and what you’ll pay. No wonder people have been trying to disrupt it for years.
But anytime you’re dealing with content, be it music, TV, or movies — the opportunity isn’t yours. It’s belongs to the companies who hold copyrights. Startups will try to wedge their way in, but almost all will fail, or will be serfs to the content lords.
Take Boxee. It was a brilliantly designed product that was a decade ahead of its time. My colleague and Vimeo co-founder Zach Klein designed an interface and hardware that set the standard for aesthetics and usability that have still not been matched to this day. It was backed by Union Square Ventures and Spark Capital — essentially the smartest money in the tech ecosystem. And yet it failed, leaving nothing but a beautiful corpse behind.
This is no reflection on Zach, his co-founders, or investors. Apple, the largest and most powerful company in tech, hasn’t been able to crack TV. They broke the music companies during the height of the Napster scare, but despite Steve Jobs serving on Disney’s board, their efforts in TV have been tentative. Even their newly released set top box offers little in content that can’t be had on a garden variety smart TV. They were recently reported to have walked away from offering a Hulu like service of their own because they couldn’t come to terms with rights holders.
If Apple struggles in an industry that should tell you something — and serve as a stark warning. Not every business opportunity is suited for startups. Success in some industries is determined almost entirely by access to tightly held IP, as is the case with entertainment. Healthcare is dominated by a Byzantine system of payments that makes it hard for new entrants to compete. Education is an area that needs loads of innovation, but requires both pedagogical and political skill to succeed.
That said, keep asking!
I was once offered the opportunity to invest in a company that made an ingredient that could supercharge energy drinks (a complex carbohydrate that uniquely stabilized blood sugar levels). I asked for advice on the investment from an entrepreneur who had sold a beverage company for over half a billion dollars. His worldview matched mine: it was a tough business, unlikely to get large and would forever be at the mercy of big beverage concerns whose distribution prowess was unbeatable. A scant few years later I saw that same company with a stand at the Boston Marathon that dwarfed all others. The ingredient company became a huge success despite being severely disadvantaged in the market.
Sometimes opportunities are so small that the big companies ignore them until it’s too late. This is definitive Clay Christensen disruption theory.
Importantly, “Whose opportunity is this?” can also be a classic cop-out — a dangerous question that can blind investors to big opportunities.
It becomes too easy a way to just say no.
At Founder Collective, we ask the question frequently but try just as hard to persistently dissect the answer in an effort to try break the rule just as frequently.