Is Your Startup Idea Truly Innovative?

Before you raise venture capital for your business, make sure it’s a viable and high-growth business.

Written by Joe Procopio
Published on May. 17, 2024
Is Your Startup Idea Truly Innovative?
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The hardest advice I have to give to startup founders is about letting go of a good startup idea, even a potentially great startup idea.

4 Questions Founders Should Ask for Every Idea

  1. Can the idea become a product?
  2. Is it viable?
  3. How big is the market for the product?
  4. How intense is the competition?

This happens more than you’d think, and it happens because the idea in question is too far out on the cutting edge. And yes, I know that’s where innovation happens, but just because the forward-thinking two percent of the world loves the idea doesn’t automatically mean that the other 98 percent of the world will eventually follow. 

And that 98 percent is always where the money is. 

Here’s how to judge whether your great startup idea is a great business idea or just a great passion project.

More from Joe ProcopioWhen Should You Stop Calling Your Company a Startup?

Bad Ideas Are Easy to Spot (and Kill)

So let’s get them out of the way first.

Look. Here’s the deal. You can’t get to a great idea without first killing dozens, maybe hundreds, of awful, silly and laughable ideas. Inspiration lives at the edges of sanity, not at the center. 

To make the jump from terrible to not terrible, your idea needs to pass a handful of tests: Can your idea become a product? Is it viable? How big is the market? How frothy is the competition? If you’re reading this, your idea has probably already run that gauntlet.

Now. Do bad startup ideas get funded? All the time. 

And I can objectively say that when a bad startup idea gets funded, it always results in a quick and cataclysmic failure. It’s a house of cards, a paper airplane, ice cream made out of meat, NFTs

Too soon?

Good startup ideas, on the other hand, when funded, usually achieve some measure of initial traction. However, there’s always a catch in that if the idea isn’t truly innovative, it will eventually result in a long, slow, painful reversal to failure. Or worse, it will approach a steady state of stagnation that requires an ever-increasing effort to produce frustratingly similar results.


The Road to Slow Failure Is Paved With Expectations

When bad startup ideas implode, the damage is usually spread across a sizable team that has staked the idea – founders, employees, investors and customers. That sucks, for sure, but at least the pain is distributed and shared.

When good startup ideas suffocate, the pain of that process is almost always entirely absorbed by the founder or the leader of the founding team.

Here’s why: The idea itself is good, maybe great. So everyone around the originator of that idea shows them nothing but support and positive vibes. As the world around the idea becomes inevitably larger and it becomes clearer that the idea isn’t truly innovative, those same folks are going to be hesitant to point out that they were just as wrong as you. So they’ll blame execution and leadership instead.

The idea doesn’t get the blame. You get the blame. 

Here’s how the idea gets founders into trouble: Good and great startup ideas, when properly fueled with money and resources, almost always enjoy quick success out of the starting gate, because the company always aims the product at the forward-looking 2 percent of a market.

That’s the right thing to do. In fact, it’s mandatory. If you want a shot at building something innovative, you need to quickly get it in front of the people who will tell you whether you’re on to something, with their wallets. 

Here’s the problem: That 2 percent is always easy to convert, as long as the idea and product seem innovative. But the other 98 percent is where the money is, and only true innovation can start to reel in that 98 percent, like pushing the peak of a bell curve to the right on the innovation axis. 

If that doesn’t happen, over time, your 2 percent will move on away from you, and the other 98 percent will stay right where they always were. That leaves your startup with zero percent market share.

More Startup Advice5 Common Startup Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Don’t Take the 98 Percent For Granted

I’ve been guilty of this more times than I can count. You’re not alone.

When innovation-chasers have brilliant ideas, they automatically assume they can convert 100 percent of their target market. The truth is they must think this way, because if they don’t, fear and second-guessing will turn any doubt into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

So we believe in our target market, and that the 98 percent will gladly come along for the ride, but then one of two things will happen:

  1. The startup venture won’t have the runway to wait for the 98 percent to convert, then the next startup or one down the road gets the payday.
  2. The 98 percent will be happy with a version of the great idea that can be immediately dumbed down and copied by an incumbent.

How do you avoid this? Stay with me. Ask yourself this question.

Do You Have an Arc Reactor?

Okay, I realize the world is approaching a point in time where fewer people automatically remember the first Iron Man movie. Ridiculous, but I accept it. 

No spoilers: Genius and infinitely rich Tony Stark took his father’s work with a specific (and fictional) energy technology and, in a desperate situation, modified it to power his superhero suit and then produce a bunch of much more practical sustainable energy applications.

So I ask you to think about your potentially great and truly innovative startup idea in that context. 

Ask yourself: Did you do the science and the desperation work necessary to create the mother of all inventions? Or are you just setting off small controlled explosions and putting the camera up close so the end result looks way more massive and awesome than it actually is? 

That’s not a simple question to answer, even for a seasoned entrepreneur like myself. I can lie to myself real easy, especially when it comes to my own ideas. 

I also can’t answer that question for you unless you can show me the science in a way that 98 percent of the world can follow without confusion or skepticism. 

Once you can do that, you might have yourself a viable candidate for a truly innovative startup idea. You might not succeed, but at least you’ll escape the dark cave of slow failure. 

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