How can a startup survive without an entirely unique product or service?

By Sam Brake Guia October 4, 2017

With an average of three businesses being launched every second, the world is full of individuals that believe they have something to offer, even if they are not bringing anything particularly new to the table.

When we think of startups, we often envision some game-changing, industry disrupting idea which influences the world. While a handful of startups fulfill this stereotype, many are actually very far from novel, more or less replicating ideas which already exist within a market.

If someone has launched an idea, essentially beating you to it, is there any reason for you to do the same? The short answer is yes. Just because an idea is more or less the same does not mean your startup has to be.

What are you bringing to the table?

A startup’s success is reliant on numerous factors, only one of which is novelty, and this alone is does not guarantee a success story.

It is important to understand where your product or service fits in with the current market. For example, what do you offer that other companies don’t or can’t? Can you deliver a service which is quicker, at a lower price, with greater knowledge in a specific area, with a better style or even in a location that is untouched?

Essentially are you able to do what is already out there, but can you do it or a certain aspect of it better than anyone else.

Something New?

It is possible for an idea to be taken out of its traditional environment or away from its conventional target market. The idea can be re-branded and introduced to a new marketplace that taps into a brand new market and a world of opportunity.

We see examples of this all the time, such as Island, a young San Francisco-based startup which has raised $1.85 Million to become the new Slack for university students.

While the concept of creating a Slack-like service is nothing new, the focus on an untouched market is, thus giving the fresh startup potential to flourish, despite industry giants already existing in this space.


Introducing a new idea into a traditional industry can prove to be incredibly disruptive, priming a startup for success from the very beginning. But like much in this world, attitude is everything. If a startup becomes lazy or disorganized, it can be easy for young competitors to take an idea and improve upon it, making it faster more efficient or even more user-friendly.

This topic was recently discussed on Reddit under the title “Why do we put so much emphasis on startups being totally unique when at least half of all businesses are barely different?”.

One user gave a personal example of how a business in a crowded industry can achieve success simply by being more efficient than the competition. They stated, “Only the other day my dad was telling me about how he started his recruitment company, I was expecting an epiphany moment on his behalf but no. His secret was that he got a prospectus from the top 15 London recruitment firms and stole the best bits from each. His wasn’t unique in any way but when capita bought it from him, they said it was the best organized business they had ever seen. I guess it’s execution over originality.”

Happy Customers

Arguably, customer service is one of the most important tools to secure your business a long-term future, with repeat customers. By creating a culture where both employees and customers are happy, this gives a serious advantage over competition which does not demonstrate this customer care. This is evident when we look at Southwest’s sky high (excuse the pun) customer service ratings.

The company previously claimed in a blog post, “We believe that, if we treat our Employees right, they will treat our Customers right, and in turn that results in increased business and profits that make everyone happy”. Though they are not the only airline in US, they have built a brand around their customers, repeatedly being ranked as one of the best perform airlines in the US for customer satisfaction. Because of this, they found their niche, encouraging customers to come back again and again for their top class service. By finding a niche as a business that goes above and beyond for their customers, it is possible for a brand to succeed even if the market is full of other companies offering the same service.

How cool is your startup?

While it may sound like a stupid question, given there is no objective scale of how cool something is, it can be a huge factor when pushing a novel idea. In fact presenting a product as cool can in itself be the novel factor.

If we consider something simple like T-shirts, you can walk into one store and potentially buy a plain one for very little. However, for some brands, a T-shirt can be a very expensive product primarily because of the lifestyle or image the company has pushed through successful marketing.

For example, British Label Jack Wills, a fashion brand which states, “A man’s T-shirt is the base of all great outfits – whether it’s a plain white tee, printed, or detailed with a pocket”, has a large collection of t-shirts available on its website.

Though they appear to be simple in design, sporting nothing more than a simple logo, the stylish image they have successfully associated with the brand has led to an incredible amount of success. When compared to an alternative brand with simpler marketing such as H&M, you can see very little difference in the T-shirts offered, yet the price of an H&M shirt can cost as little as £3.99, whereas Jack Wills is likely to set you back £20.95 for what is described as a “basic Tee”.

Make a difference

Ultimately, no matter what you have to offer, even something revolutionarily new, relies on multiple factors. This can be bad news for business which lacks the enthusiasm or understanding to implement an idea correctly, but it also allows smaller, more determined startups to find a niche even if another company has beaten them to it. As the American musician Jonathan Davis, the lead singer of Korn, once said “You laugh at me because I’m different, I laugh at you because you’re all the same.”  So embrace your difference!