“Everything that can be invented has been invented” -Charles Duell, Commissioner of US Patent Office, 1899
Surely you’ve ran across this quote before, and probably had a laugh about it. And since he likely didn’t tweet this from his iPhone while driving his Smart Car, he was also wrong. But his quote has some truth to it today. Everything we realistically want and need is here. Of course there will be some breakthrough products that change the way we do things, but for the most part we’re a pretty satisfied bunch. Succeeding in business is tougher than ever, because everything we need is already here, for the most part. So how to we move forward?
Statements like this are the type that people laugh about 5 years later. But realistically the odds that you are going to come up with a breakthrough invention that’s completely new are pretty slim. You may come up with an improvement on a product or idea, sure but are you likely to come up with something that’s completely, 100% out of this world new? Probably not. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer, just being realistic. So what can you to do to break ahead? You need to find an edge, a need that is unsatisfied.
The first Web browser was pretty awesome, and easy to market. It’s 1993 and you want to check out these new “webpages” so you downloaded Mosiac, for free. Then along came Netscape who improved on the idea, and never made any real money. Microsoft, who was pretty late to the game, came out with Internet Explorer (also free) and changed the game again. Soon, IE took over the market and that was the end of the story, for quite a while. People didn’t need anything more than Internet Explorer provided. They were happy. When the masses are happy with a product, they stick with it. No need for anything new.
But to say everyone was happy with IE would be false. There were security issues, and more technical users found problems with it. Developers hated it, because they had to change their code to “IE specific” pages and it was quite difficult to build standardized pages that looked the same to everyone. But these people, were they the status quo? Of course not. These were the “edge cases”, the fringe groups, not the general user. Susie Soccer Mom didn’t care about HTML and CSS standards when she was browsing Ebay for Beanie Babies so it didn’t matter much. The edge was ignored for quite sometime.
Enter Firefox. This was a browser based on an entirely different engine, and built for the power user. Not only was it faster, but also more secure, and rendered pages better. It quickly caught on with the power users and development started really picking up, and Firefox quickly added support for plugins, themes, and other really great features. The power users tried it, adopted it and never looked back. The type of people who use Firefox are the type of people who try new things, and experiment. Again, they’re on the edge. Today, Firefox is the second most used browser in the world, which is no small feat. David truly is throwing some serious rocks at Goliath, and they know it.
There are similar stories out there for Linux, MacOSX and other products that serve a minority rather than the majority. Make no mistake: If Firefox had tried to grab the mass market from IE they would have failed. If they tried to put out a “vanilla” product to compete with the existing vanilla product and go after the mass market, they would have failed. Instead, they found an edge.
So long story short, instead of trying to usurp some giant corporation’s mass market product, look for the edges. Don’t try to invent a better web browser, operating system or smart phone. You aren’t going to start a revolution by inventing an a better lawn sprinkler. Don’t try to come up with a better flavor of vanilla. The products that everyone wants are already here. The mass market products are already serving the masses just fine. Your product may be better, but they will ignore it. You have to shoot for the products that certain people want, and find the areas that the vanilla products aren’t serving well.
Find an edge, and give it all you’ve got. Find a niche of a market that isn’t being served well, and solve their problems. Not everyone is going to want your Caramel Apple and Cinnamon ice cream, but if you do it right, those who will want it will become loyal customers.
Remember as a marketer your job is to solve a problem. If your market is content, any small improvements will likely be ignored. Find the market with problems.