When was the last time you used AltaVista? Most people these days have never even heard of it, but AltaVista was the number one Internet search engine before Google burst onto the scene. Back in the day, when you needed to find something on the Web, you went to AltaVista. It was the dominant player. You had to be crazy to go up against it.
The founders of Google, however, decided to do just that. They thought they could provide a more capable search technology, so they took something AltaVista had done well, and they set out to do it better. They certainly weren’t the first to index the Web, but they became successful because they did it better than the others.
Since its early days, Google has also been admired for its clean, simple page layout. It wasn’t the first search engine to try that, either. AltaVista had a clean page layout, too, but it decided to move away from that simplicity for a more complicated page design. Google quickly filled the vacant space, adopting AltaVista’s original, simpler design. At that time, Google was virtually unknown in the business, and adopting a design that had just been dropped by the dominant player in the industry was considered a risky move.
Today Google owns 80 percent of the global search market. AltaVista’s market share withered long ago to single digits and it barely even rates a tiny blip on the radar screen. Very few people have heard of AltaVista, but everyone knows Google.
When you’re thinking about starting your own business, it’s natural to want to have a unique idea. After all, you imagine, if you can offer a product or service no one has offered before, you’ll have a competitive advantage. For many people, finding that unique idea is an essential prerequisite to starting a business. But are they wasting their time waiting for inspiration to come? Does one really need a unique idea to find commercial success?
The fact is, most successful businesses were built on the ruins of someone else’s original idea. Before Google, even before AltaVista, there was Archie. Archie was the world’s first search engine, designed by a student at McGill University in Montreal. It brought him some minor fame at the time, but it never became a sustainable business. Just because your idea is unique doesn’t mean it will turn into a successful business, because most business success comes from taking existing ideas and improving on them.
There are many ways to improve on an existing idea, but most of them fall into one of two categories. The first is improving the quality of the product or service itself. Your product might not be the first of its kind, but does it do something better than the ones that came before it? Google started because its founders decided they could provide better search results than AltaVista, and even though Google now practically owns the search market, it still works relentlessly to continue improving the quality of its search results.
Another way to improve on an existing idea is to form a stronger emotional bond with your customers. When two products are similar, customers will pick the one they feel closest to. That emotional connection often comes from face-to-face contact, but not always. Look again at Google. When was the last time you picked up the phone and talked to that nice customer service person at the Google help desk? Google doesn’t form an emotional connection because it has friendly customer service, Google forms an emotional connection because it makes the internet easy.
By almost any measure, Google is an immensely successful business, but it didn’t start out as a unique idea. Google’s founders were not the first to say, “Hey, I have a new idea, let’s index the Web,” or “Hey, I have a new idea, let’s have a clean white page.” So if you want to start your own business, don’t spend too much time sitting around waiting for an original idea. It’s okay to get started with something that already exists, and make it better.