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Why Your Great Ideas Will Fail

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.

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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.