Startup Essentials #2: The Power of “Purple Cow” Ideas

Startup Essentials introduces 3 must-knows to check off before starting any company or personal project. Whether you’re becoming a social influencer or embarking on your 1st startup, Startup Essentials are simple but important concepts for making your entrepreneurial endeavor as successful as possible. If you missed the 1st, find it here.

As much as we want to be original & unique, sometimes we willingly conform.

With the cities we travel to (Barcelona, New York, Kyoto), the music we listen to (Billboard Hot 100), to the food we get for takeout (burritos, teriyaki, & poke in the Northwest), it’s often easier to go with the “most visited” than to discover our own gems.

A surprising but obvious example: personal style. As much as clothing has become a powerful form of self expression, more often than not we blend with the latest trends.

For men, we’ve all seen these: the Ivy League cut coupled with an textured, collared shirt and cuffed slacks over quirky socks; the man bun paired with a tall, slim fit t-shirt and tapered jeans; and my favorite, the well-kept beard fashioned with a bomber jacket and wing-tipped boots.

Why don’t we dress a little more different? A little more absurd? If “over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty click-through rates” applies to growth marketing, then the same applies for personal style: over time, edge cases of style get played out.

The reality is that we need more “purple cow” moments in life (a purple cow is something that stands out, purely by contrasting itself from the monochrome mass).

From the ideas we come up with at work, to the bars we frequent at night, to the hobbies we explore, we need to be willing to try radically new things and stand out, much more often.

This is especially true for startups.

Any viable business idea needs to undoubtedly be a remarkable concept. Why? Because if not, your journey will mirror the tale of Sisyphus: forever rolling a rock uphill as you try to be noticed in a sea of lookalikes with near identical products (like Wealthsimple, Wealthfront, Betterment, and many others in the robo-investor market), when it would have been easier to create a radically different idea from the start.

It’s why Peter Thiel says, “All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”

It’s why being the first in the market or category are 2 of most important immutable laws of marketing.

And most importantly, it’s why so many businesses struggle, sputter, and go extinct: they fail to be unique.

So how should entrepreneurs adopt this “purple cow” way of thinking?

Here are 5 guiding tips:

#1-Be willing to explore the limits

Some of the most evolved industries (computers, telecommunication, aviation) received full doses of skepticism before proving they actually had legs.

#2-Go niche

Instead of building a product where everyone is your audience, why not start small with a subculture of enthusiasts? This is where fanatic early adopters await (cryptocurrency being an great example).

Albeit earning polarizing love-hate reactions, those who lean in and really see your idea for all its glory will be the 1000 diehards that you’ll listen to in order to 1) build a phenomenal product and 2) scale later.

#3-Solve a real, pressing problem

Every day we encounter tasks that could be automated, habits that could be gamified, and time that could be saved. Great teams brainstorm and attack problems from many different angles, in turn leading to remarkable “a ha!” moments (credit: Akshay Ahooja).

#4-Be absurd

When creating your own purple cows, you should willingly include a hint of absurdity (example: Google seemed absurd when compared to other information-rich search engines like Yahoo or Ask Jeeves, but now is the industry standard).

A fun but useful exercise is to think in a “zero gravity universe.” If the obstacles of money, time, and technology were gone, what would you build? What would the experience be like for the customer?

#5Steal like an artist

As Austin Kleon says, a good artist rarely thinks of ideas out of thin air, but rather “borrows” from a collection of experiences, people and industries.

Richard & Maurice McDonald were inspired by the conveyor belt system to produce McDonald’s burgers at lighting speed while Uber & Airbnb spawned hundreds of “Share Economy” startups over the past decade.

The truth is that before any clever marketing and explosive growth can take place, you must have a “purple cow” product that stands out from all the noise.

Something that solves a huge problem, something that a handful will love (and a few hate), and above all, something that doesn’t conform (no more man buns or Eiffel Tower SnapChats, please).

5 responses to “Startup Essentials #2: The Power of “Purple Cow” Ideas”

    • Hey Paul, thanks for the comment. Likewise, thanks for the compelling content & ideas. Cheers, Jakub

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