(Editor’s note: Michael Greenberg is COO of Loyalty Lab. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)
Well, virtually steal. The cost to run substantial implementations on Google Sites, use Amazon Web Services or leverage Salesforce.com are obscenely small compared to what the features in those services would have cost five years ago.
Open source started the trend and still makes up a huge portion of the theft-worthy applications available. A website CMS is essentially free these days, requiring just some nearly-free design talent (such as 99designs), a decent nearly-free writer (i.e. elance) and some of your time.
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You now can do three of five basic components of a pre-product company for almost nothing: A web presence, a good idea, and a good business model. The fourth depends on the idea – either a good team or good operations. Either way, you need resources to translate your idea into something people can interact with.
Once you’ve got these four, you can get to market. But it’s the fifth component – finding enough feedback to validate your idea – that’s toughest to get. Ultimately, you need to get input from potential consumers before spending years on what might turn out to be a bad idea.
These days, there are four ways to get the minimum necessary attention to determine if your idea is worth investing additional time and effort:
Public relations – Getting media outlets to do your job for you, by covering your idea and disseminating it far and wide, is the dream. But achieving that dream isn’t easy, given the sheer overload of pitches reporters get daily.
Many entrepreneurs go no further than cutting a check to a PR firm. An alternate approach is to find an out of work PR pro, hire them for a week, suck their brains dry and do it yourself. This isn’t for the faint of heart, and it may just be simpler to keep the PR person on retainer, but the basic PR tasks of developing relationships, pitching story ideas, and helping writers aren’t rocket science. They just require discipline and focus. (The larger question is: Do you have the time to do it right?)
Natural search – Like good media coverage, this is exceedingly difficult area to master these days unless you have an incredibly focused topic or lots of friendly inbound links from your contacts. The average entrepreneur doesn’t have the specialized expertise to develop this. Again, it might be worth hiring an out of work SEO specialist for a week and suck him or her dry. Better yet, negotiate a low rate and keep them on retainer. (Elance is a good option here as well.)
Social networks – There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who spend every second thinking about this, so I’ll spare you another essay. My one word of advice is to stay focused on the target audience’s needs and find their watering holes. Whether it’s Twitter, YouTube, Slideshare, LinkedIn, or one of a hundred other resources, there are plenty of ways to reach your audience.
A great byproduct of the social phenomenon is that most expertise is disseminated for free, open to steal. Applying the expertise is, of course, the hard part, but a smart entrepreneur can figure out 90 percent of it from readily available resources.
Search engine marketing –You can always buy Web traffic if you have the bankroll. If all else fails, buy a thousand visits and see how customers interact with the site. This, unfortunately, is tough to steal. (Google has lots of lawyers, so stealing from them is a bad, bad idea.)
Practically everything you need to succeed is waiting for you to raid it. You can get enough from a single credit card advance to pay for everything mentioned above.
Unleash your inner pirate and steal the technology and knowledge that are there for the taking. If you have the brains, drive, and disciple, there’s no longer a capital barrier to proving yourself well enough to figure out if you have the next Facebook or the next Pets.com.
Photo by Spanner Dan via Flickr