The Founder’s Paradox: How to Be Original in a World of Copycats
August 16, 2021

The Founder’s Paradox: How to Be Original in a World of Copycats

by Brian de Haaff

It is incredibly frustrating when a product does not work as you would expect. If you are a creative sort, I bet those moments of frustration get your juices flowing and you usually have a good idea as to how to make it better. Some of those ideas might even be breakthroughs. But the bad news for entrepreneurs (and good news for humanity) is that there is almost always another person percolating on an idea for that very same problem — if not dozens more.

The insight or big idea is not necessarily what makes you successful — it is how you help people realize the value of your solution.

Your ability to sustain your enthusiasm for that solution also plays a significant factor in how lasting your business will be. Yes, you need to solve the problem. But it is important to solve it your way and bring all of who you are — from explaining why the problem needs addressing to why people should choose your product or service. Authenticity is your greatest competitive edge. Which is why imitating others is an unproductive detour.

But you will inevitably face the peril of comparison at all stages of growth. As a startup, every day is a minefield that threatens your survival. No one knows who you are so you are tempted to explain your business by drawing parallels to existing companies — saying that you are "X for Y." Think: Uber for planes. Or Whole Foods for pets. Later on, you might be tempted to add new features to your product because a larger competitor just did the same. Or you are swayed to sponsor an industry conference because an upstart just landed a keynote address.

Yes, it is important to be aware of others in your space — but it is just as important to avoid being consumed by rubbernecking.

Think about some of the most iconic companies today. Patagonia, Disney, Tesla, Apple, and Nike all come to mind for me. What makes them dominant is also what makes them peculiar. They are truly different and come with a worldview that is entirely their own — no matter what you think of it. Sure they keep an eye on other alternatives that customers might encounter. But they are not followers. They lead with gritty authenticity and that is what inspires customer loyalty and love.

Every entrepreneur aspires to that type of market leadership. It starts with knowing yourself — deeply — and understanding exactly what makes your value proposition unique. That is how you can operate from a place of strength versus reactive fear. Holding true to your character and beliefs may be challenging at times. But remember that most people do not flock to purchase a copycat. Everyone wants an original.

So how do you make your idea the one that people actually choose? How do you avoid getting lost in the dozens of other solutions to the same problem that are floating around in the ether at this very moment? You focus on differentiation — through your unique perspective:

How you solve the problem

Make your solution the best. This is the way that your offering outpaces all others — from features to aesthetic to performance. This also tends to be the easiest area for others to replicate what you do, so it cannot be your sole focus. But it is where you start. You can build upon your solution, but at its core, you do not want to deviate from its essence.

How you support your customers

Allow your service and people to stand out. When we were first starting Aha! I knew that responsive support from experts would help us serve customers in a way that would create real value for all. We continue to average a global first response time of less than two hours and only hire former product managers onto our Customer Success team.

How you promote your business

Showcase what makes you, well, you. You know the stories that will inspire customers and make them feel connected to your product because that is what inspired you to start your business. It should not come as any surprise since you are reading this, but writing blogs and guides — freely sharing our journey — is one way that we promote Aha!

Focus on building the future as you see it. Be you and do what you think is right, not what others are doing.

This is the weighty challenge that takes courage to overcome. You need to stop copying others and build your version of the future instead. And when you do that with clarity and purpose, there are very likely others who will join you. These are the principles that define you. And this is what will define your success.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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