On the wrong sort of innovation

The one thing that is common to all successful startups is that they identify a very real problem that enough consumers or businesses have, and then provide a solution that is significantly better than the current way the consumers or businesses are dealing with the problem. It does not matter whether you are a B2C startup or a B2B startup, this is the bare minimum that your startup should be doing if it has to have any chance of success. Of course, this is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for success. There are far more startups that have identified a real problem and have come up with a solution that is better than any extant solution, than those that have been successful. Yes, there is always that ineffable thing called luck which is a factor. But keeping luck aside, there is another important factor that a lot of startups fail to take into account, and often end setting themselves up for failure. It is this near-obsessive need to be doing something that is radically different, a need to solve the entire problem from scratch and not build upon something that already exists. Elon Musk gets stuck in traffic? He decides to bore mega tunnels underneath cities to set up a new and hideously expensive variety of (not really mass) public transit. Sometimes, this obsession manifests itself slightly differently. Entrepreneurs get obsessed with whatever the ecosystem defines as hot when it comes to innovation. Last year, it was cryptocurrency. This year, it is things like Artificial Intelligence, data science and so on. So your startup may be using only a few Excel sheets, but you will claim it is AI, and soon enough start believing in that lie too.

I can, unfortunately, see manifestations of this wrong kind of obsession in a lot of important real-world problems in India that more likely than not are going to be solved by successful startups. The most prominent among these problems is that of end-to-end commuting in urban cities. Taking a person from their home to their workplace, and then back home again. Or the adjacent problem of heavy traffic in such cities.

That ideas like personal transporters, electric scooters and their variants, which may be faddish in pockets of the developed world right now, and in the case of Bengaluru, specific outlandish ideas like pod taxis, are being met with enthusiasm rather than scepticism, fills me with dread. This is one problem where there is a real need for something incremental and not something ‘innovative’.

Every startup, once they have identified the important problem that they want to solve, and have come up with a product that they believe best solves the problem, should ask themselves a couple of questions. Is this way of solving the problem practical enough? And importantly, does it build upon something that already exists? Let us leave the moonshots to Musk. The real success for startups lies in being attuned to the ground situation.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space

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