How to determine if your startup idea is unique

By Shaun Symm, March 29, 2017
Person looking through a magnifying glass

Bang! A great idea just popped into your head. It solves a problem. It’s exciting. It’s so unique. It’s a world first!

Or is it?

At Launch Lab we have the privilege of hearing hundreds of startup ideas each year. The vast majority of founders we speak to believe their ideas to be unique. In reality, a proportion of the ideas presented to us are not original.

So, you think your idea is new and unique? How can you confirm whether or not it is without a financial or major time investment?

Why do you need to know who your competitors are?

First let's look at why you need to know if someone else is already working on the same idea.

Here’s a great quote from Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb, on how they wasted 4 months chasing an idea that had already been built.

We didn’t have this flash of inspiration that Air Bed & Breakfast was going to be huge. In fact we started building a different product, a roommate search tool. We worked on this for 4 months and then realized had already built this service. I couldn’t believe how much time we wasted on this before checking the URL

Other than saving yourself loads of time, knowing who the direct competition is will help you to understand:

  • their current scale
  • what market they’re active in
  • if they've secured investment, and if so, how much?
  • how good their product is
  • what people are saying about the product on social media
  • if it is worth pursuing the idea

Starting your competitor research

Lets look at where you can start your search for competitors.

Here are some search methods, and websites, that will help you refine your competitor research to determine if your idea is in fact unique or if it has been done before.

  • Google:
    Start with a general Google search using descriptive keywords. Think about how a competitor might describe their product. What keywords would their customers be searching to find a product like this?
  • Appstore and Google Play:
    You can search here too, and it's worth a mention, but usually good old Google is enough. Although, if you are developing a mobile app maybe this is the place to start.
  • Google take 2:
    If you can’t find anything don’t give up on Google just yet. Think about the startup category your idea fits into and search using that term. The best way to explain this is using an example. Recently I was doing research for a new startup in the education technology space (edtech). I’d read that London was the ‘capital for Edtech startups’ so I searched ‘Edtech London’ and came across a post titled "21 UK edtech startups to watch". I didn’t find a competitor in that post but I learnt a lot about edtech and the other problems that startups are solving in the space. You can do the same for Fintech, AI, HealthTech startups and almost any category.
  • Angel List:
    Go to the companies page and start searching. Using the example above I would search ‘edtech’.
  • Crunchbase:
    Go to the companies page and search keywords. By searching ‘edtech’ I found that there are 1,982 results. The results page is really helpful as you get to see a short description of the company as well as their Crunchbase rank. 1 being the best. Currently occupied by Facebook. Udacity tops the ‘edtech’ results with a ranking of 62.
  • Quora:
    Search for a topic or category. There is usually a bit of reading here but you can usually skim through people’s answers. The more you dig the more you usually find as people who answer questions often refer to products in their answers.
  • Product Hunt:
    This takes a bit of time and can be hit and miss but it’s worth a try. Go to the Product page and search for your keyword. For example, who knew there were so many people working on products in the ‘sport marketplace’ space?
  • CB Insights:
    This is a paid service but you can get free insights on their blog. Once on the blog use the search field and search for your keywords. For example, searching ‘fintech’ brought up this post listing hot fintech startups.
  • GetApp:
    Scroll to the bottom of their homepage to the ‘All Software Categories’ section. Is your category there? If so, select it to see what is there. Who knew there was even a category for ‘kennel software’. And, look how many companies are in this space. Wow!
  • The 'vs' hack:
    If you do find a competitor then a good hack to find if there are others like them is to Google the term ‘{company name} vs’. For example, at Launch Lab we love Intercom. We use it with almost all startups we build to increase retention and to automate marketing. If I wanted to know other companies that offer a similar service I can simply search ‘intercom vs’. Try it and see the results. This usually works best when there are established competitors in the market.

What do you do if you do find a competitor?

Do more research.

It’s possible that the other company working on your ‘unique’ idea is chasing a different niche. Or they’re also early stage so you can beat them. Or, maybe you can release a superior product by studying their weaknesses.

After digging deeper you may even find that their product isn’t as similar as you first thought. You might even find that you’ve got a better growth strategy, better insights or better partnerships.

We recently had an example where a founder who had approached us found a direct competitor that already had a product in market. The founder asked us if we thought it was still worth pursuing the idea.

We started collecting information about the competitor. We were able to find out that they were targeting large corporations with their solution. They were only in Europe. They’d recently secured a small venture capital investment.

We found a blog post where they revealed exactly what the VC money was for. They clearly stated that it was for expansion to the USA and to further get a foothold into the enterprise market.

Our client is focussed on Australia with the potential to expand in Asia. They are also not focussed on enterprise but rather small independent businesses where there is a massive market.

We also knew that the funding the competitor had received wasn’t enough to get them to the point of conquering the US market for a long time and so there would be an extended period before they launched in Asia. On further inspection of the competitor's product we also found out that it was different to our initial assumption.

Valuable insights gained before a cent had been spent on the business.

Happy researching!

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