It’s the middle of the night and you are lying in bed when you get a lightning-strike idea. You reach for your phone and type your idea into Google only to discover that someone has beat you to it. Today we speak about this common scenario and answer the question — should you start something new when all the good ideas have been taken? As we discuss early on, the existence of Ask Jeeves didn’t stop Larry Page and Sergey Brin from creating Google. After exploring this example, we talk about how discouraging it can be to see that someone else has built a company using your idea. We share ways that you can develop your idea by focusing on market research and catering to different demographics while highlighting how competition “breathes life into innovation.” We also touch on how nothing is created in a vacuum and that products like the iPhone are a natural next step from Blackberrys. Near the end of the episode, we chat about the protective role that patents can play. Tune in and hear why it’s okay that someone already has your idea — you just might be the Facebook to their LiveJournal.
Key Points From This Episode:
- How all the good ideas already seem to have been taken.
- Why different expressions of the same idea are good for users.
- Ask Jeeves versus Google; a lesson in going through with your good idea.
- How discouraging it can be to discover that someone else has your idea.
- Beating your competitors by being a data-led company.
- The link between competition, lower prices, and more innovation.
- Establishing a new market where none exists.
- How nothing exists in a vacuum and ideas follow from other ideas.
- Using market research to build on your idea and out-innovate your competitors.
- Protecting yourself by securing patents for your intellectual property.
Transcript for Episode 181. Starting Something New — Are All the Good Ideas Taken?
[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast. Live from the boogie down Bronx. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.
[0:00:09.3] DA: Dave Anderson.
[0:00:10.3] MN: Today, we have the question, should you start something that already exists?
[0:00:16.0] DA: everyone knows that every good idea is already taken.
[0:00:21.1] MN: Yeah, I mean, I imagine like every time I’m thinking like I have an idea, I should do it, wait, this thing is done already. But should I just look past that? Should we continue to build something with the possibility that it could be better than what we currently can do.
[0:00:37.3] DA: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of funny like, I wanted to find — I had a couple of presents that I got for my niece, I had like a space helmet and I had, like, a unicorn hoodie. I was like, this would be great if there was something that tied these together so let me search for kid’s books that involve unicorns in space.
And it existed, I just googled it and it already existed. It blew my mind, there was not just one book about this too, there was like a couple.
[0:01:10.0] MN: There were a couple of books about it.
[0:01:11.5] DA: Yeah, I mean, it’s so wild.
[0:01:14.1] MN: I mean, but you could have written that book and it would have tied everything that your niece ever wanted. And maybe you could have added more rainbows, you could have added candy, all sorts of stuff.
[0:01:28.1] DA: Yeah, but I didn’t have the time for that so you know, obviously I contributed to the burgeoning rainbow, unicorn in space market.
[0:01:37.7] MN: I mean, but all ideas right now, I think it’s, you know, anyone who has that question should consider exploring that option. Because the more options that are available, the more beneficial it is for the user or for the customer to get the best product that they want. I’m pretty sure, did you buy the first unicorn space helmet book? Probably not, you probably have to look for the good one.
[0:02:03.9] DA: Yeah, I mean, there were I think two or three options, it wasn’t too much but you know, I did, I think I chose wisely in the end.
[0:02:13.0] MN: We go back far ancient into the internet, you know, if you were going to search something, you would Ask Jeeves, you wouldn’t Google it, you would never Google it.
[0:02:24.0] DA: I forgot about that, I remember like one of my friends was like, “You got to use Google.” And I’m like, “What is this website? This is so inferior to Jeeves.” Like, you know, Jeeves has got a nice suit. He makes me feel good, like, I feel very important when I ask him a question. Although he never really answers it in the form of an answer, it seems kind of redundant and Google’s just nothing but like — it works really good. So provides an alternative, a value proposition where it’s like, it’s a no brainer. Why would I Ask Jeeves when Jeeves doesn’t tell me anything that I want to know?
[0:03:06.2] MN: Right, and then you know, Google added some more functionality to its search, that was able to optimize requests from that search bar. So that it’s more fine tuned to the thing that you're looking for. You weren’t asking Jeeves anymore, you were googling it. Even the word, phrasing of saying what to do is different now. You would ask Jeeves for something versus you would Google it, I don’t know, I was just really interesting.
But without — what if the creators of Google were like, “Oh no. Those Jeeves, man, Jeeves got it. We’re not going to create this thing, right? That could have easily stopped how we interact with the internet now because everyone’s using Google.
[0:03:50.0] DA: Right. Yeah, I guess there’s always room to differentiate between the products. Like, I remember when we were starting The Rabbit Hole, if we had googled it first, we would have realized that there were seven other podcasts titled, ‘The Rabbit Hole.’ But, you know, maybe it’s good that we didn’t Google it. Because I like the name and I feel like we’ve got some good content, that’s quite different from the other stuff that’s out there that’s called The Rabbit Hole. We’re not an urban survival podcast.
[0:04:24.9] MN: No, we’re not. But you’re often in software engineering, jumping into rabbit holes of code, of solutions, of stock overflows, which is why we thought it was great. We had a big list too, I remember. Going through all the different sorts of programming names but we’re the definitive developer’s podcast, as we journey through the rabbit hole.
That’s who we are.
[0:04:46.9] DA: That is our differentiation, yeah, we’re not the New York Time’s potentially award-winning podcast rabbit hole about the corruption of the internet by algorithms and QAnon but, you know, we have our own niche
[0:04:59.5] MN: Yeah. That is who we are right now. That’s the thing, had we — if we had used Google to determine whether this was a correct title and then maybe not created this podcast at all, we created it and now it’s a thing and we’re still publishing episodes to the best of our ability. And we did it and we started something and it’s still continuing to start.
[0:05:22.0] DA: Got to be starting something.
[0:05:23.6] MN: Yeah, you got to be starting something like the late Michael Jackson. “Want to be a starting something, you gots to be starting something.” Hopefully Spotify doesn’t turn this down or Apple Play music, please this is not — we don’t own the rights to that song.
[0:05:37.6] DA: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, I was working — like, doing a Google Design sprint which we had talked about awhile back. And, like, we were doing market research about what competitors were out there and it was like, “Wait, parts of this idea already exist.” And it felt very discouraging seeing that initially but then you know, thinking about all of the other competitors that are out there. Uber versus Lyft or, you know, Myspace and Facebook.
[0:06:14.6] MN: Man, battle of the decade right there.
[0:06:21.4] DA: Let alone Xanga or LiveJournal, I guess. If Mark Zuckerberg looked in and was like man, Xangas already there, I shouldn’t do it.
[0:06:31.3] MN: Yeah, I mean, look where he’s at now? Facebook is like many billion users — had a vision of what the application should behave and interact and how they interact with other people and ended up winning the social media race to collect everyone’s data.
[0:06:49.1] DA: Right, it wasn’t like that was a new idea. But, I think Facebook particularly is very good at listening to the data. Even though there’s like a million Facebook users strong for, like, the old Facebook — “Bring the old Facebook back.” Every time they make, like, some kind of a change, but they’re always looking for what is driving the metrics that they want to drive. And that helps them be successful by being analytic about, even though, arguably, maybe being so driven by analytics and the data and the outcomes and trying to optimize may result in some kind of an insane situation in the world.
[0:07:34.0] MN: Right. Toppling countries and elections and all sorts of craziness.
[0:07:40.3] DA: Yeah, LiveJournal never did that.
[0:07:42.0] MN: Or Xanga, right?
[0:07:45.1] DA: We could go back. But you know, for people, it’s irresistible. You want that product.
[0:07:51.7] MN: I mean, I do think that the different products, like the more a particular product exists, then the more innovation can come out of it. I can only imagine right, like, if AWS is the only one stop shop for you to do all your serverless related ideas, like, then everyone would use it. And then it will be game over, you just use AWS, right? But there’s all these other products like you know, Google Cloud Platform, Azure. You have, like, Digital Ocean and that kind of stuff to serve different products at a smaller, at a cheaper price point.
You know, that will keep AWS on their toes with determining how they want to either innovate on their products or bring down their prices. Because if it was AWS alone and they can just put the prices hell-a expensive and then you’re forced to use it.
[0:08:38.2] DA: Right. Some compete on price or, like I say, everyone can be some price to a degree. But, like, also, like AWS, as soon as you mentioned that as a product, I was like, “My god, the dashboard.” It’s so not user friendly. There's very thorough documentation and you can go through all of the AWS University and learn how to be a wizard at AWS. But — and they are improving it over time but it feels like you know, this is a product by engineers for engineers. But some other platforms like Heroku or Digital Ocean, a little bit more pleasant to click around on.
[0:09:23.1] MN: Yeah, I mean, that AWS counsel is intimidating. My god, they just, like, loaded it and there’s so many words here —
[0:09:34.4] DA: Right.
[0:09:34.5] MN: You could use, I imagine that like no denying, I am sure that 70% of the internet is now on S3 or AWS, there is no stopping that, right? Huge companies use Amazon to spin up their servers. I can imagine that Google may have like a niche product or may come up with a niche product that may challenge Amazon. And the list of products that exists here, which is kind of crazy but without that competition you don’t. With competition breeds innovation, right? That is capitalism that is a thing that was part of our country.
[0:10:07.4] DA: Sports metaphor. It’s our sports metaphor here.
[0:10:10.9] MN: Yeah, exactly. I mean I was getting a little too hyped there for a second but I mean, I can only imagine like, you know —
[0:10:15.5] DA: There was like a firework going off behind you like a flag unfurled. It was breathtaking.
[0:10:23.0] MN: I imagine that with these different companies — will have some form of innovation across these different organizations to then create something.
[0:10:32.0] DA: Right, I guess like Heroku is interesting in that respect because I think Heroku actually uses AWS under the hood. It doesn’t really matter to me, the end user. I will pay more money for Heroku in some situations because I don’t need the level of control or detail that AWS provides. I just need to start something, right now. And I don’t want to think about well, these are layered things.
[0:11:04.3] MN: Right and you know, just because one company does it very well doesn’t mean that another company can’t come by and copy the very same thing, right? I mean Steve not to — I mean the iPhone is an innovation in itself, right? Like the way cell phone was used before was completely different than when the iPhone first came out. But an iPhone is still a telephone. It has a screen that was a touch screen and, you know, Steve Jobs and the team at Apple figured out a way to refine all of those experiences of using a phone that made it better.
[0:11:39.8] DA: Right.
[0:11:41.0] MN: And without Apple’s contribution to what a smartphone looks like, we wouldn’t have the selection of smartphones that we have now.
[0:11:50.8] DA: Right and I mean, I could see it also, it’s like, where would Apple be without Blackberry? And that really brag-ably huge keyboard.
[0:12:01.8] MN: Yeah that I mean I used to love my Blackberry keyboard. Man, it was awesome. You could feel the keys.
[0:12:07.7] DA: Oh you had one?
[0:12:09.0] MN: Yeah, I had one. It was a really small Blackberry, it was purple but I didn’t care bro. It was a Blackberry, it had a qwerty keyboard in my pocket, ready to go.
[0:12:16.2] DA: But didn’t they have retro, like, typewriter keys you can type with? Maybe they have a retro Blackberry keyboard they can Bluetooth attached to your phone or something.
[0:12:26.2] MN: Oh man, that would be dope, that one is pretty great. I love the BBM, that was Blackberry Messenger, man you were a hit if you have Blackberry Messenger bro. You were so important if you had Blackberry Messenger. But, like, they didn’t have iPhones and that was just like why?
[0:12:39.3] DA: I guess I wasn’t important then.
[0:12:42.8] MN: I had no friends, I don’t know what I am talking about.
[0:12:46.1] DA: Oh man.
[0:12:47.8] MN: I think the idea is, like, if you have an idea, you should go out of your way to figure out, like, if you can create the same idea. And then try to iterate on that to make the thing better. And we mentioned many different examples that did that and were successful. You know, another one that has come to mind I think you mentioned Dave before is, like, you know, hailing a cab right? That used to be very easy, you just wave your arms and you’re like, “Let me in.” And then, “Okay you got to pay this much.” — “Cool, all right, fine.” I don’t know for any of the listeners out there but if you are in Manhattan —
[0:13:21.4] DA: And then they’re like, “Oh nope.”
[0:13:24.2] MN: Yeah, I was going to say if you are in Manhattan, you work in Manhattan and I used to wave my hand and they used to ask me like, “Hey, where are you going?” I am going to the Bronx and they are like — “Nope.” And they will drive off. And Uber is great because someone else is managing the credit card. So they knew that I had to have paid already when I got in. The worst that I got from a cab driver was a huge sigh because he’s like, “I got to drive to the Bronx but I am about to make 70 dollars.”
So like, even that little innovation of like getting, hailing a cab ensures that more customers are going to use this product because it catered to people who lived farther than the others.
[0:14:05.1] DA: Yeah and, you know, avoiding the need to flap your arms is always a bonus too.
[0:14:11.0] MN: Yes that is correct and like chase the cab down or something weird.
[0:14:16.4] DA: Yeah, I mean, I guess on the other side of things like if you try to do something completely new that — it doesn’t exist and no one has heard of, like, how do you know that anyone actually wants that? You have to start the market from scratch if you have to build that from scratch. I think you’ve got a problem, like, breaking into an established market but you know it is a tough proposition. Like look at Charles Babbage. 1800s he’s like, “You know what people want? Computer.” Nobody wanted a computer in the 1800s.
[0:14:54.1] MN: Nobody had thought about computers at the time but he did.
[0:14:57.2] DA: Yeah, he thought of it and then, you know, either programmed it and then you couldn’t get to work and cost so much money and felt like, “Dude, we just need a light bulb or something or a telephone.” Like, keep it simple.
[0:15:11.1] MN: Something small and tiny. Start small, get bigger and bigger. I think even if you’re going off of what you mentioned, Dave, about trying to find the market. That is like where user interviews would come in like if you — for whatever product that you are looking for you should ask and see if there is a market for it. And I think, whether it is user interviewing, like — for example if you had a product that you want it for, for babysitting that you would have to find a list of people to —
[0:15:40.6] DA: That may be able to take your kid into a room where they wouldn’t be screaming through the podcast.
[0:15:45.8] MN: Right. So the idea of that is you have to find parents and see what that application will look like to — “What would you want if you were looking for a babysitter for an emergency for whatever reason.” That is the idea.
[0:15:58.2] DA: There are a lot of bad babysitter apps too, like —
[0:16:02.6] MN: I mean I don’t use it anymore, like, Geo is great like he jumps on the podcast all the time like, I am okay with that.
[0:16:08.5] DA: Right, he is in the high notes you know?
[0:16:11.6] MN: Sure, I mean I don’t think I am ready to look for a babysitter in an app. I don’t think there would ever be a time where I would be comfortable with doing that. But I am sure if you have thought of one and we used it. That is also like the market research, if you have an idea that already exists, you can definitely do the research on that idea and then try to make it better and then build off of that.
[0:16:32.7] DA: Yeah, some people I know swear by those things. But you know, there is a lot of trust that it is involved in building a market like that. And, like, you definitely would be helped by more people being on the platform and yeah, all of that.
[0:16:50.1] MN: The one thing that I would be curious to talk about, I am not a specialist in this, is how patents work. And how that affects intellectual property and creating an application, right? Did Uber have to create a patent for when I click a button a taxi appears in front of me — is, like, that a patent? I wouldn’t think so because Lyft does the same thing, right? How does patent work in software engineering and software development?
[0:17:16.3] DA: Yeah, I mean I guess like sometimes people definitely have patents but sometimes they’re using them as shields instead of swords. Like, they’re not fighting each other with them. They are just making sure that if they do get sued that they don’t get attacked, which is maybe a bigger topic in itself. And one that I don’t feel entirely qualified to give any legal advice for but, you know, it is something that you would have to consider as you are growing and establishing things to differentiate that you have to think about.
[0:17:53.3] MN: Right, so I guess to wrap this all up, should you start something? Yes. But don’t sell it until you find — you have a lawyer enough to know more about software patents and all sorts of crazy intricacies to determine whether you are able to be marketable in that. But I would say me, personally, if you have an idea, competition breathes innovation and by building something you can either build something new that your users may want. Or you can get bought out by a very big company, very similar to how Facebook bought Instagram and made a lot of money that way.
[0:18:32.3] DA: There you go.
[0:18:33.2] MN: So go make the next Instagram, we’re counting on you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:18:36.9] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five star review and help developers like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.
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