Why Your Great Ideas Will Fail

by on 25th June 2010 with 27 Comments


Everyone has a big idea.

The next Facebook or Twitter is being presented to potential funders by a hundred different startups every year. However, many or even most of these ideas never really get off the ground. So what’s standing between these companies and success?

Today we’re going to look at why many brilliant ideas fail to make an impact and one essential question that could’ve helped them succeed.

The Danger of Optimism

“Stay positive.” Many will tell you this is the key to success. Simply visualize success and focus on your strengths and you’ll be neck deep in cash in no time at all.

Far too many entrepreneurs follow this advice and fall into a mantra of quoting their service’s amazing feature set. “Here’s what we do that no one else does!” “This is how much better we are than the competition!” Unfortunately, this pattern of thinking is so narrow minded that it more often than not leads to failure.

The problem is that it’s simply much more pleasant to focus on the positive aspects of what you’re offering. Anyone who tries to bring up something negative is castigated as a naysayer and a stumbling block on the road to fame and fortune. Any weaknesses should be brushed under the carpet. Sure we all know they’re there deep down and are scared to death someone will notice, but that that’s just counterproductive thinking right?

A Better Mousetrap


The fundamental problem with those individuals who possess brilliant ideas is a complete misconception of the way people think and act towards the products they use.

Ralph Waldo Emerson sums this line of thinking up in his quote “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Anyone driven by intellectual thought and the value of innovation loves this idea. Unfortunately, it’s complete crap.

Building a better mousetrap is in many respects the easy part. Getting people to use that mousetrap instead of those that they purchase and own already is the hard part. The greatest faulty assumption that you can make in marketing is that people will always act in a logical fashion. This idea assumes that humans are completely rational and is therefore quite absurd. Brand loyalty, complacency, ignorance and laziness, all work against you in getting people to try your product.

An Example

To illustrate what I mean, think about the world of gaming in the 1990s. What if, while most kids were still trying to convince their parents that the Playstation was better than their Super Nintendo, someone would’ve released a game system much like the Xbox. An ultimate media center, PC and gaming console that could even connect to the Internet! Surely, this would’ve instantly brought the console wars to a halt and ushered in a new era in gaming… right?

What if I told you someone did just that? Now what if I told you that company was none other than Apple Inc.? Ever heard of a product called the Bandai Pippin? Unless you’re a pretty serious nerd like me, probably not.

The Pippin is a clear case of a product that was in many ways, a better mousetrap. It did things that no other gaming console had ever done before and boasted of a much larger feature set and wider range of possibilities than anything else on the market. However, the most generous estimates put the number of units sold well under half the number produced. Translation: The Pippin was an enormous failure.

One of the primary reasons for this failure was a completely biased focus on all of the benefits that the system had over other existing competitors. They failed to ask if anyone would even know what to do with a game system that connected to the Internet. They also failed to ask themselves if any system could feasibly launch in the midst of an already heated battle between Sega, Nintendo and Sony, a battle so intense it ultimately led to Sega’s permanent exit from the console market.

The point is, they had a thousand reasons why people would buy their product over the competition but completely missed the fact the question they should’ve been asking was “why wouldn’t people buy our product?”

Transitioning Customers

Douglas Olsen, my absolute favorite professor in college, developed a marketing theory known as the General Resistance Model.

The real heart of the theory is that there are a lot more factors at work for motivating customers than simply offering a better product. Instead of spending countless time, money and energy reaffirming your hopes about why someone would like your product, you should instead be focusing on why certain people would resist your product. Ultimately, what stands between them transitioning from their current system to what you’re offering?

To tie this whole thing back into web service creation and design, consider what people currently use and what would prevent them from using your service instead. You can create a service that blows Facebook out of the water with features, aesthetics and customization, but the problem remains: everyone already uses Facebook.

Even if you imagine that you’re idea for a site is completely unique, if it’s a service of any kind that people really need, they are already fulfilling this need through other means and your job is to find out what would prevent them from leaving that system.

Examples of Focusing on the Negative

One great example of a site that got it right is ZooTool. On Design Shack and elsewhere, I constantly inform people that ZooTool is fundamentally better then Delicious. It’s a better bookmarking service in almost every way. However, I always had trouble convincing people to switch to the service simply because they had already invested so much time in building a Delicious library.

I’ve chatted a bit with the guy behind ZooTool and he seemed to understand this limitation right away. As soon as possible, they rolled out a feature that allowed you to import your Delicious library right into ZooTool, thereby making the switch seamless for new users.

The ZooTool developers knew that they were taking on a giant by entering the bookmarking market. Though they’ve by no means significantly weakened Delicious, they have seen a massive surge in the number of people using their service in the past year. You can bet that an important factor in their success is the ability to not only focus on their strengths but also investigate why people might not want to use their site and attempt to accommodate those concerns.

Another great example of a company that realized the limitations of their product is Apple (after that whole gaming mess of course). It used to be that the primary reason you couldn’t convince someone to switch from a PC to Mac was that they had critical software that simply wouldn’t run on a Mac. Eventually, Apple switched processors, rewrote their architecture and even released an official method of running Windows right on your Mac!

By targeting the customers who would’ve never dreamed of switching, Apple overcame their biggest hurdle in getting more customers.

Start Asking “Why Not?” Today

This notion will be completely obvious to some and absolutely revelatory to others. I challenge you to look at your own current and future projects in a completely new light. Stop imagining that you’re sitting on top of a gold mine because you’ve come up with a good idea. Instead focus on how your current plans for the execution of that idea might lead to failure.

Talk to as many people as you can and ask them why they would or wouldn’t use your service. Odds are, you already know enough about the people who would use it so focus instead on those who aren’t interested. Especially if the reason is because they already have a solution that they want to stick with.

The key is to find the real motivating factors for your target audience. Locate the points of resistance and make them your primary goal from now on. Make it as easy as possible for users to switch from their current system to what you’re offering. Be sure to highlight that your system is perfect for anyone switching from the competition and that you provide the tools and support to make it a completely painless process.


To sum up, the real message in the post above is to make “why not?” the most important question you ask. Whether you’re offering the next big thing in web 2.0 or simply your services as a designer, consider the biggest reasons why people might not want what you’re offering.

Leave a comment below and let us know if you’ve ever come across a product or service that you agreed was fundamentally better than what you use, but simply didn’t provide the key item or feature necessary for you to make the switch.

Comments & Discussion


  • Eric

    Well, I use ZooTool and tried it, yet found that Amplify was easier to use in some ways, and found that it was hard to use them both together. Amplify integrated with other services, and it did not integrate with ZooTool. So, that makes it hard to use them both, yet Amplify allows you to clip articles, and ZooTool only allows to clip images. I also found the same with Enjoythin.gs as it wasn’t easy to use as much as ZooTool, and found ZooToll more interesting in some ways. Overall, I use Amplify most, then ZooTool, and then Enjoythin.gs

  • http://knowledgecity.com Jae Xavier

    attempting ideas is better than failing to try.

  • clervius

    Either I haven’t read too many motivating things in a while, or i’m in a really down place right now, but this actually motivated me.
    I loved it entirely.

  • http://www.gomocha.com kertz

    Nice article. Also gonna try Zootool ;)

  • http://blog.nerdburn.com Shawn Adrian

    Excellent! I read the whole article top to bottom. I think I’ll initiate a “Why won’t people use this?” discussion in every project I’m involved in from now on. Thanks!

  • http://htmyell.com Jamie

    Seriously good and thought provoking article. I particularly liked your use of examples. Thank you!

  • http://www.vgreano.com Victor G. Reano

    Agreed, execution is what its all about these days. You can’t sit around hoping anymore. I mean, you cant expect someone to just be bombarded with features to switch over when something they know and use comfortably is already available. I think XBox’s success was timing and marketing, because who really used the internet in the early 90s for online play?

    Anyways, good article, retweeted.

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  • http://www.digitalbuzz.com.au Dan

    Great article, have signed up for zootool looks nice.

    I think your right on the money find out why people don’t want to switch. A lot of the time I think the reason is going to be laziness they know there is better stuff out there but it all seems too hard for them.

    Find your potential customers pain point with what they are already using (is it hard to use, doesn’t get them results etc). If you fix enough pain they will gladly switch and sing your praises.

    Under promise.

  • bruceleevscheese

    Excellent article and a fresh perpsective. Laziness and mistrust are two fundamental human factors that should be taken into account.

    Whenever someone tells me they’re working on a great project, but refuse to divulge any further details then that, for fear of idea theft, I think, they don’t know how it works yet. You have to tell as many people as will listen to you.

  • http://www.nuiteq.com Harry van der Veen

    Thanks for sharing.
    Like the Apple example.

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  • http://www.digitalstyle.com.au Nico

    Excellent innovative article,something very fresh from a mind that see everything in a different way.
    According to me there somethings which drops down every human being one is over confidence and low self esteem. Both seems to have more effect on a human being and among them over confidence is more dangerous than other…
    One must be under his own control.

  • http://www.igcenterprises.com Joe

    Good article, but I can’t agree with it entirely. Would facebook have gone anywhere if Mark Zuckerberg had stopped coding one day and thought “Is anyone going to use this?” ? Some times it just takes a lot of failures to achieve that one success. Blind faith in a product has built a lot of successful companies.

  • @jenztweets

    Ah, more evidence that negativity, properly applied, is good for you!

  • http://idmgh.com Evans Domina Attafuah

    Was about to convert my application into a bookmarking site till i read this. I will have to focus on why people wouldn’t use my service because my concentration has always been on the advantages i have. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this article…God Bless

  • http://twitter.com/SparklinGuy Himanshu

    I tried hard to relate to these suggestions being an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, i wish these suggestions were well explained and illustrated with better examples.

    Good attempt though, I am hoping for better content next time.


  • sike

    Great article!
    The Apple example was the one that I liked the most.

  • http://pollyfolio.com/ Polly

    Completely agree! People don’t like changes, people like the convenience of the familiar things. They like their own stuff, the room that they’re used to, no matter how much better the outside world can be. Our job is (if you allow me to continue with the house metaphor) to make them open their window.

    Love the way all this was explained – not in a negative “Give up already” kind of way, but more like “It’s tough, but there’s a way”. Love that the article provokes fresh thoughts and gives inspiration, and I especially love how it punches the laziness in the balls.

  • http://everydaypanos.com everydaypanos

    Rule No1 of those who are “offering the next big thing in web 2.0 or simply your services as a designer”:
    Do not read blog posts that have SEO Friendly titles that pretend to know better. They don’t.

    I promise.

  • Steven Black

    So based on this I sign-up for Zootool and, guess what, the Delicious importer is nowhere to be found.

    Thanks for the bum steer, dude.

  • http://twitter.com/LordPancreas Hugh Guiney

    So, basically, the lesson is: do market research. Which is a good one to learn, but that’s not nearly the same thing as considering “How could I fail?”, which is entirely counterproductive. You could fail a hundred thousand different ways, but focusing on those scenarios doesn’t address any real problems; you’ll just get caught up in your own head, which is paralyzing. The better question to ask is “Is there an actual need for this?” and if not, think about whether you could manufacture a need (as with infomercials), or move on to something else.

  • http://www.maiconweb.com Maicon Sobczak

    A precious article.It’s easy to stick to just one way of thinking, remarkably the optimistic. To face the dark side of things lead us to improve our business and most important ourselves.

  • simply put

    Ha you did a amazing job. Tell me how much money do you make off a sign up for zootool? yes thats affiliate marketing at its best. bravo and no i will not be signing up instead I will be following u closely

  • http://blog.vinhkhoa.com Vinh Khoa

    When spending too much building up the application features, it is easy to forget about other questions that are equally or even more important. It was an interesting read. Thanks

  • http://www.gwphotography.weebly.com Grant

    I am now faced with so many reasons of “why not” people are going to not use my services… Ahh suicide….
    No wait, there is a light.. how can I change my services?

    Nice and REAL!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/snippetme lola pixie

    Fascinating blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my blog stand out. Please let me know where you got your theme. Bless you

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