Mark Twain famously said, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible.”
Of course there are new ideas and I am fortunate enough to live in the epicenter of innovation where I see new and astonishing things every day. But I’m not insinuating Twain was wrong—not at all. The second, and less quoted part of his well-known axiom explains how he sees it: “We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Many companies exist because of the success of another company. Think about the entire ecosystems built around Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, salesforce.com and SAP. Startups that build products on top of bigger platforms enhance the base platform while at the same time accessing an audience and a timely way to achieve relevance for their own product. Think of the opportunity a mobile developer has to provide something that becomes highly rated on AppStore. As Twain might see it, this make the kaleidoscope more colorful.And, in many ways, Twain was right. That is how the best innovation happens—with someone looks at something, and then changes it, sometimes slightly, sometimes massively and makes it better. Innovation isn’t always about a totally new idea—but it is always about a better idea and better execution.
What if something else happens, what if someone builds a startup that doesn’t extend what you do, but rather copies it, or competes with it? What if they start selling the same kaleidoscope?
You should respond with the same strategy you should have had since inception: building the best product and moving as fast as possible. You will never get anywhere by getting bogged down with the competition. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If you have a great idea, expect people to copy it. (That said, be smart about your intellectual property and protect it appropriately.) But most importantly, stay committed to consistently making your idea better.
The same rule applies in every startup scenario—whether you are competing with another startup or selling in a marketplace that isn’t ready—create something that people love more than any other option they have. If you don’t do that, you are just winning at that moment of time, but you won’t have lasting success.