Last week I was talking to an ambitious young professional that wants to get into the startup world. We were discussing ways to evaluate the potential of a startup — how big and successful it might be. In terms of evaluating startups, he offered up a serious concern of his saying that it’s easy for a big company to just knock off the software once a startup proves the need. With a background in real estate, he had seen ideas and strategies knocked off repeatedly.
Building a product that offers similar functionality to another product is straightforward. Building a successful startup or product line based on another successful startup is incredibly difficult. Here are a few reasons why software can’t just be knocked off to have a successful business:
- Switching costs and the network effects of using a product are significantly more important than one can appreciate without being in the industry and seeing it play out (think of salesforce.com as an example with high switching costs and Snapchat as an example that benefits from massive network effects)
- For each visible feature there are hundreds of behind-the-scenes features that can’t be seen or accounted for unless you have hundreds or thousands of customers (think of the iceberg example where only a small amount of the iceberg is above water and the majority of the iceberg is below water — unseen functionality)
- The Mythical Man Month still holds true whereby adding new software engineers to a project to speed it up actually slows it down (e.g. if a big company threw a bunch of engineers at a new product to get it done quickly, it would be worse off than a smaller team working in conjunction with customers over a much longer period of time, which is what a startup does)
So, it’s very difficult to copy a product and make it as successful as an already successful product with the same market and buyer.
What else? What are some other reasons why it’s so difficult to just knock off a successful software product?