‘How can I possibly come up with a good idea? Surely all the good ones are already taken?’
Every business begins with an idea, so the first step in the 48-hour start-up process is to come up with one. Usually, this is where people fall into a great black hole of endless dreaming and scheming. Some people can’t come up with any ideas at all and some come up with too many and can’t decide which one to pick.
One of my all-time favourite quotes comes from an American called Charles H. Duell. All the way back in 1899, when he was the US Commissioner of Patents, he proposed that the Patent Office’s days were numbered and that it ought soon to face closure. He proclaimed that ‘Everything that can be invented, has been invented.’
Of course, more than 100 years later, his comment strikes us as farcical. When we think of all of the innovation and change that has happened in the century that followed his proclamation, it is clear that he was very much wide of the mark. But the funny thing is that this is exactly the type of comment I hear people making al- most every day.
If you watch programmes like Dragons’ Den (or the US version, Shark Tank), you can easily be given the impression that the qualification for a good idea is that it is unique, that it is hitherto something that didn’t exist in the world. On these TV shows, eccentric and hopeful inventors unpack a suitcase inside which they have carried some kind of bizarre contraption – like a special mop that cleans under- neath the fridge or a gadget for de-icing your car windscreen in seconds.
Of course, these spectacles make for great television, but they don’t actually tell the full story of what is and isn’t a good idea. It is true that these hapless inno- vators are often quite correct when they say that their creation ‘has never been done before’ – but, sadly, there’s often a reason for why that’s the case!
What I have found in my career is that your idea doesn’t necessarily need to be high-tech – although, of course, a lot of brilliant ideas are. A good idea definitely doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. What my experiences show is that it’s possible to make something extraordinary out of something as ordinary as jam, beer or cof- fee.
USP IS DEAD
TV entrepreneurship shows probably also give you the impression that good ideas ought to have a patent. They bleat on about how important it is to ‘protect’ your idea. ‘If you don’t have a patent, someone else can just come along and steal your idea!’ the ‘dragons’ shout as they shoot down another under-prepared entre- preneur.
In the real world, almost no businesses have a patent. Their ideas simply aren’t innovative enough to be granted any kind of special protection from competition. And even those who do hold these certificates of monopoly over their ideas aren’t really protected from much in the real world. If their idea is any good, someone will come along and find a way around their patent or maybe even come up with a bet- ter solution to the problem altogether.
So if I’m telling you that there is no need for your idea to be unique, surely this flies in the face of the conventional business mantra that every business must have a ‘unique selling point’. I don’t know about you but this principle was drilled into my head in business studies as if it were a fact of life – that all businesses only exist because they are doing something ‘unique’.
When you stop to analyse this, you quickly realise that it is ludicrous. There are basically no unique businesses, except perhaps a few privileged government monopolies. All businesses have close competitors, easy replacements, copycats and imitators. Even those who are doing something unique soon find their unique- ness eroded by other people’s innovations. So how come any of them survive?
Well, the truth is that it isn’t by being unique that businesses succeed. It’s partly by just being a little bit different – a bit better, a bit cheaper or a bit faster. It is undeniably also about having the best business model. But more than anything it’s about having a unique story, a unique brand.
Sure, when I came up with the idea of making jam 100 per cent from fruit, this was a pretty novel idea. But it wasn’t completely unique. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, many people have copied our concept over the years. But the one thing that people couldn’t copy was my story.
Now you might say, ‘Hey, it’s easy for you to say that – you had this cute story of you and your gran.’ Well, it’s nice of you to say so, but to be honest I’m sure you also have a great story. About why you’ve decided to start your business, perhaps; or about who you are and what you believe in.
The simple fact that you are a unique person is part of what makes your business unique, no matter how ordinary or commoditised its products might be.
Look, if my dad had lost his job and started selling jam door to door in middle age, that would have been a story. And if my gran had started selling jam in her se- nior years, that would have been the best story of all. Whoever you are, there is some story you can tell, something you can say that makes your brand special.
By bearing this in mind, you can take some of the pressure off yourself to come up with something completely different. Your idea doesn’t need to be unique, it just has to be authentic. It has to come from the heart and be something about which you are passionate. With this in mind, you can start to look at the world as full of opportunity – if you don’t have to do something unique, you can do any- thing.
SAME PROBLEM, DIFFERENT SOLUTION
If one thing makes you aware of the opportunity to reinvent even the most everyday of items, it’s travel. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to over 50 countries over the past few years, partly with SuperJam and partly for my own adventures.
What you quickly realise when you start to travel is that so many of the things we consider to be expected or essential in our lives are in fact alien concepts to people who happen to live in other countries.
Take some of the most fundamental ideas we have in Western society; that a toi- let should be like a seat, with a lid and a flush. Or that food should be eaten with a knife and fork, sitting at a table. Most countries in the world view these funda- mental things differently. I’ve been to places where they eat with their right hands, with chopsticks, with a spoon and fork, or just with a fork. I’ve been to places where I wasn’t even sure how to use the toilet, or indeed whether I wanted to, so primitive was its design. And I can tell you, this isn’t a cultural one-way street – in Japan they think our toilets are barbaric and in India they think it’s disgusting that we touch our food with our left hands.
When you realise that even the most fundamental ideas about how we should live can be called into question, you realise that it is possible to reinvent anything and everything. And someone will.
I like to imagine a person from 100 years in the future coming to visit us here today. There are some things they will no doubt be familiar with, like ring pulls on fizzy-drink cans or shoelaces. But they’ll be amazed that we don’t yet have so many things they take for granted. The only difference between now and then is that some entrepreneurs in the meantime will come up with new ideas and products and, cumulatively, they will change the world.
Hopefully by now, with all this talk of changing the world, I’ve convinced you that the world is full of opportunity; that things are only the way they are because someone else made them that way – and that you have just as much right to change them as they did. Your idea can be unique and transformative, but the chances are that it won’t be, and that’s okay too.