Are you Chasing a Mirage?


Considering how easy it has become to start a company – and the legions of young entrepreneurs keen on doing so – I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that I get pitched so many identical ideas.

One perennial source is college entrepreneurs who, drawing from their limited personal experience, tend to pitch me ideas having to do with dating, course selection, tutoring, text book rental, and the other inconveniences of college life.

For obvious reasons I also get pitches from the hundreds of companies all aiming  to be the “Netflix Of” something.  I’ve seen (in no particular order) companies wanting to become the Netflix of Toys, Batteries, Books, Games, Anime, Sports, Clothes, Flowers, Cosmetics, Baby Clothes, Skis, Cell Phones and Neckware.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

Other times there just seems to be a flavor of the month.  Recently it’s been Airbnb and Getaround wannabe’s, all trying to bring peer-to-peer sharing to new categories like bikes, tools, sporting goods, and clothing.

The tragegy here is not that the ideas are derivative or not particularly creative, it’s that so many of these ideas have been tried before.  And failed!

I call it chasing a mirage.

When you are chasing a mirage, your brilliant idea shimmers with promise when seen from a distance.  It’s only after you’ve expended valuable time and money crossing the desert that you ultimately discover that there was never really anything there.

But the real tragedy isn’t the loss of time and money, it’s that the inevitable failure was tragically knowable in advance if only you had taken the time to research those previous efforts and think analytically about why previous efforts to do this very same thing had met with failure in the past.

I still can’t quite figure out why so many people are willing to plunge lemming-like over a cliff that someone else has already jumped off.  It’s seems to be an equal mix of ignorance (“I had no idea anyone had ever tried this before”) and hubris (“I’m better than those other jokers”).

Whatever the case, it’s gotten so that whenever I find yet another entrepreneur gearing up to strike out across the desert toward their personal mirage, I ask them, “why you?”

In this case, asking “why you” is not a knock on them personally.  It’s not questioning their abilities as an entrepreneur, nor their perseverance.  (In fact, overflowing self confidence is an important weapon against the endless chorus of people telling you you’re idea won’t work, or that you can’t pull it off).

No, “why you” means “why are you going to be successful with this idea when others have not”? if you don’t understand exactly why the pioneers who went before you failed, than you risk repeating the exact same experiment with exactly the same results.  It’s one thing to have confidence. But it’s hubris to think that you are so much smarter and harder working than the others.  The key is what you do, not how hard you do it.

If you think you’ve found a blank space on the map, a little warning bell should go off.  Why has no one done this?  Why is no one doing this now?  If you can figure out what went wrong with other tries, you’re in an infinitely better place to get it right with yours.  And if you truly have found an idea that has never been tried before, the proper emotion should probably be fear rather than excitement.

As Santayana famously wrote, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  But I think there’s a simpler way to think about it:  If you’ve come up with a seemingly novel idea that seems to good to have not been tried before – well it probably has.

Or, as any poker player will tell you, If you can’t tell who the sucker is at the table, It’s you.


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