Startup Marketing: Be The Lesser Of Two Necessary Evils

July 27, 2007

Before I offend any of you or scare you off, when I say "necessary evil", I'm speaking in a broader sense about things we simply don't like.  I am not suggesting that you actually be evil.  Google has demonstrated quite well the value of not being evil (or at a minimum, the value of stating that you don't want to be evil).

So, what do I mean when I say startups should try to be the lesser of two evils?  This is easiest explained by an example.

Necessary Evil:  Taxes. 

Most of us hate taxes.  It's not just the paying money part, it's the preparing (and the dreading of the preparing) that makes this "evil".  But, for most of us, it's something we *have* to do.  So, when a company like Intuit comes along and offers TurboTax, it falls into that category of "lesser of two necessary evils".  Of course, you don't have to buy tax preparation software.  But, you do have to file taxes.  Intuit took the necessary evil of having to figure all the stuff out yourself (or hiring someone to do it) and being less evil than the other things you could do.

To re-emphasize this point:  I don't think any of us gets up one morning and decides we want to buy tax preparation software.  We recognize that there is a necessary evil that needs to be addressed and we pick the lesser of the evils (which varies from person to person). 

My point is this:  If you're building a startup (particularly a bootstrapped startup), it is much cheaper to try and market something that is necessary (even if it's evil).  There are lots of entrepreneurs that go after fun ideas like music sharing, YASG (Yet Another Solitaire Game) and consumer internet type stuff.  There's nothing wrong with these ideas.  But, I think there are a disproportionately high number of people pursuing these ideas simply because they're so much fun.  The number of stories we read regarding these fun ideas is also disproportionately high (we don't ever hear about the thousands of entrepreneurs that were not successful pursuing these ideas so we get a distorted view).

So, if you're a first time entrepreneur and are actually looking to build a nice, profitable, sustainable business (and having a decent chance at doing so), I'd advise looking for a market that has a number of "options" to address some necessary evil -- and strive to be the least evil of them.  It's not the only way to start a company, but I'd argue that it's not a bad way, and a reasonably pragmatic way.  And, I'm all about pragmatism.

Written by Dharmesh Shah

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