It struck me the other day that most of the great internet companies and services which have seen massive success in recent years were in many ways a result of coincidental evolution rather than by prior design. That is to say few of them started off life how we know them today and most came from small groups or individuals rather than massive corporations. Here are a few examples to name but a few:
- Flickr was originally built as part of an online multiplayer game
- Facebook started life as a student information directory at Harvard
- Twitter began as an internal project at a company doing something completely different
- YouTube came about when the founders couldn’t find an easy way to share videos
Some people will put this down to luck or being at the right place at the right time but to a larger degree, all these people were just trying to solve problems they were experiencing themselves. They didn’t start out thinking “I’m going to build the next worldwide communications platform” or anything so grand but rather were creating something to suit their own needs. Once it became clear that what they had made would be useful to others then things took off and evolved.
From this perspective, one might argue that success is not something that can be designed but rather the result of something far less tangible. A smart person alone won’t necessarily be successful even if they do everything they plan perfectly and likewise the perfect solution may be too specific to be useful to anyone else. The creation of something new by definition is not a well-defined process.
Another part of this is innovation. A product that allows you to do something quicker, easier and for less might have something going for it but to be revolutionary it has to do it in a way that has never been done before. Twitter generated the perfect storm for this by providing simplicity with a new mode of instant messaging. A key point here is not to do something different for the sake of it but to do something different in a way that improves on what came before or opens entirely new doors.
With all this in mind I think there are a few key points to bear in mind for anyone with a “killer idea”:
- Great things happen when you are scratching your own itch
- Provide real value by allowing people to do more with less
- Innovation comes from people, not corporate strategies
- Long term planning is overrated when the ground beneath you is shifting so fast
There are obvious exceptions to these rules, Apple being one of them, but these are few and far between (there is only one Steve Jobs after all). Most large companies manage to succeed through sheer momentum gained by their early growth and user dependence. Case in point Microsoft makes pretty shoddy products but still makes tonnes of money because their users are hooked into a perpetual upgrade cycle. I would give an analogy to drug dealers but perhaps that would be going a little far!
I’d be interested to hear what you think about this. Can success be designed or is it something far more organic?