Your Startup is a Scalpel, not a Swiss Army Knife

A scalpel has one single use. It slices thinly and precisely.

A Swiss army knife has many uses. The knife is mediocre, as is the corkscrew, the file, and most of the other tools on it.

If you’re a startup, be a scalpel, not a Swiss army knife.

Years ago, at a startup weekend, founder Tim Metzner shared this lesson with all of us. I still think about it, so I want to share it with you.

What is Your Unique Advantage?

If you try to make a product that does everything, your product will be known for nothing.

Let’s take a company that does everything: Amazon.

Their first product was books, and books only. Buy any book in the world from their site.

Right now, they are the everything store. But if they tried to do that years ago, not only would they not have been able to handle that kind of logistical challenge, but their brand would have meant so much less.

Facebook is the same way. They started off with a very tight target: college students.

Even the name isn’t original. Colleges used to have online student directories called face books. Good luck googling that though, as the SEO is shot to hell.

Facebook’s innovation was rebranding MySpace-style pages as a face book targeting a very niche and passionate group of users. It wasn’t anything crazy, just the right combination at the right time.

They only expanded once they cornered the market on Yale, then ivy league colleges, then all colleges, then high school students, and then years later your grandma.

Your Idea May Be Small Or Huge, But it Must Be Niche

Paul Graham said it in his essay How to Get Startup Ideas:

How do you tell whether there’s a path out of an idea? How do you tell whether something is the germ of a giant company, or just a niche product? Often you can’t.

The founders of Airbnb didn’t realize at first how big a market they were tapping. Initially they had a much narrower idea. They were going to let hosts rent out space on their floors during conventions.

They didn’t foresee the expansion of this idea; it forced itself upon them gradually. All they knew at first is that they were onto something. That’s probably as much as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg knew at first.

With this in mind, give yourself permission to pick an idea that feels incredibly niche. The weirder your idea, the more people will initially say “no” to it.

But if you find one person who gives a resounding hell yes then that’s when you absolutely know you’re on the right track.

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