Gene Yoon has been a founder, startup executive, venture capitalist and lawyer over the last decade in Silicon Valley. His current startup, Bynamite, is attempting an idea that many have failed at before. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.
Thirty seconds into my pitch for a system that lets users control the ads they see, I can tell that my audience gets it. The problem is clearly understood, the solution is simple, the use cases are well-defined, the market size is compelling. There’s only one hitch: History says this effort won’t succeed.
Over many years, there have been many smart entrepreneurs who have made the same pitch, and all of them have failed. So I must answer the question — the capital-Q Question — “Why will you succeed where the others before you have failed?”
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It’s a good question, and it has more wrong answers than right answers. But this question is sometimes the wrong one — especially when it suggests that an idea isn’t worth pursuing just because there’s been a history of failure.
Before you’re ready to address the Question, you have to consider its corollary: “Why do people keep trying this idea?”
Possible answers here involve irredeemable stupidity, unforgivable ignorance, and incurable obstinacy. But assuming that everyone involved in the conversation is rational and well-informed, there’s only one correct answer: the idea is intrinsically compelling and obviously worthwhile. People keep trying because the expected rewards of success overcome the low odds of success.
In fact, it’s possible that the more compelling the idea, the longer the history of failure — because the most compelling ideas have been with us for a long time, regardless of whether or not they are possible to achieve in any given time.
Take for example the idea of human flight.
More than a hundred years passed while the idea evolved from a science experiment to a practical project to a massive industry. But the core idea is so elemental that despite those centuries of “failure,” today we can hardly imagine a history where this dream would have failed to become a reality.
This example illustrates the folly of some common wrong answers to the Question. Some people believe they will succeed where others have failed, because of superior intelligence, or harder work, or even better luck.
But the Wright brothers didn’t win because they smarter, more diligent or luckier than Leonardo da Vinci. All of those those factors pale in comparison to the fact that their efforts occurred four centuries later.
The only right answer to the question of why you could succeed where others have failed is:
You must believe that times have changed, such that what was once impossible is now achievable.
Of course, mere belief isn’t enough, unless you prefer the path of stupidity, ignorance and obstinacy. The detailed task for anyone pursuing the formerly impossible is to precisely identify what necessary conditions for success currently exist, which did not exist during previous attempts.
It didn’t happen just because Steve Jobs is a hard-working genius, succeeding where his own company had failed before (mostly without him).
Instead, his genius was in waiting for the required advances in multitouch screens and related user interfaces, low-power processors, and wireless broadband – and then striking as soon as those elements were available at a reasonable cost.
My personal example is less epic than Icarus and less timely than the iPad, but it has all of the elements for asking and answering the Question. My company, Bynamite, is one of a long line of efforts to give consumers control of their online advertising experience — not to block ads, but to see better ads.
But we do know that certain matters have crossed a threshold as compared to, say, three to five years ago:
- Industry size: online behavioral advertising is now a billion dollar industry. As recently as five years ago, the idea that someone was using your Web history to target ads to you was a largely theoretical concern; it may have been happening, but not often enough that you’d notice it. Now behavioral targeting is a big growth area for the industry, so consumers are seeing the effect more and more, and the media and the government are taking note in a big way.
- Consumer habits: one of the tough problems in trying to get consumers to participate in the value of their own data is that the data isn’t worth much per consumer. But one of the lessons of the multibillion dollar markets in Facebook games, virtual goods and the gamification of online life is that relatively small amounts of value can drive huge volumes of consumer behavior, if the presentation and packaging of the experience is right.
- Data markets: In prior times, startups had to both build a consumer experience with data and build a market exchange for that data. The ad data ecosystem is rapidly evolving, and has matured to the point where several different kinds of next-generation data exchanges exist. That cuts the problem in half for any startup attempting to allow consumers to monetize their own data.
Only time will tell if these factors are really necessary or sufficient. But history has already demonstrated that the idea I’m working on has failed over and over again – and contrary to some implications, that is the surest sign that it’s worth trying.
If you are pursuing an idea with a history of failure, take heart!
And then get to work on identifying the precise developments that give you confidence that now is the time for the idea to take flight.