What Makes for a Bad Startup Idea?

Earlier today, I received an email from SpeakerGram, announcing that it was shutting down. The service helped speakers manage their inbound speaking requests:

“We have decided to shut down SpeakerGram. While we are thankful for the support that our users have given us, we have changed our focus to a new product, and need to shift the balance of our energies towards that effort.”

This kind of thing happens to startups all the time. It’s just not something the media reports on because most of these startups don’t reach the name recognition that makes them big stories.

But why was SpeakerGram the wrong idea? Why do thousands of ideas end up in the deadpool? And what makes for a great idea that captivates the masses?

I’ve heard, seen, analyzed and written about thousands of startup ideas over the years, and while the reasons most of those ideas die varies, there are a few consistent themes that I’ve noticed typically signal a doomed idea.

Here’s the short list:

  1. The idea is too narrow: It simply addresses too few people and too small of a market. In SpeakerGram’s case, the issue is that there are just so few people that actually need something to manage their speaking engagements. It’s a very small group of people that engage in significant public speaking.
  2. The idea isn’t fully formed: Many startup founders just come up with an idea, jot it down and start building. The problem is that they haven’t thought the whole thing through before building. Will people actually use it? What are the idea’s flaws? Will it survive against the competition? Don’t start building until you’ve really thought about and addressed these questions.
  3. The idea doesn’t evolve: Ideas need to evolve as the market evolve. If the idea or the team is too rigid, then the project starts to suffer and can’t pivot fast enough to survive.
  4. The vision isn’t ambitious enough: This, above all, is what kills a startup. Big ideas derive from a big vision. Radical product changes are easier to implement if they fall within an ambitious vision that the founders are willing to fight for.

Great ideas take years, not months, to emerge. Facebook wasn’t a billion dollar idea when it launched at Harvard. It became a billion dollar business when it launched the single most important feature in the history of social networking: News Feed.

Very few entrepreneurs nail the idea on the first try. That’s why VCs always say that they prefer to invest in “A” teams with “B” ideas instead of “B” teams with “A” ideas. The “A” team will eventually get its act together and throw for the game-winning touchdown, while the “B” team will get a few first downs before settling for a field goal or fumbling the football.

My advice to anybody with a great startup idea: think it through first. Make sure you ask the hard questions, go through all the scenarios and have a bold vision that can carry the team to the finish line, even when the original idea doesn’t catch fire. A little patience before you jump into the building process will save you from building a product that nobody wants.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Twenty Questions