Too Many Startups, Not Enough Difference - 1

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Too Many Startups, Not Enough Difference - 1
Last month, my startup-scene column in Raleigh's News and Observer featured a story about a very early-stage startup, GoPhish. I got totally psyched about these guys at the Carolina Challenge, an annual UNC Chapel Hill program that encourages university-based entrepreneurs to bring their startups off the planning page and into the real world, with up to $15,000 in prize money as incentive. Happy to say that they won, and took home a $1,000 prize.

The N&O column also comes out in print, so it's constrained by space limits. I can live with this, of course, because I like print, but it's rough in the sense that I'm not a journalist, I'm an entrepreneur who happens to not be able to stop writing about stuff.

In this case, that column was about 2500 words when I started and closer to 500 on the printed page. Were those extra 2000 words all gold? Of course not. But there was some of it I really wished I could have shared with you.

Then I thought, "Hey wait, I've got a website!"

So as a result, here's a DVD-style bonus feature here on ExitEvent, where words are cheap, to get across some of the finer points.

Starting with one of the things they left in, which I'm thrilled about because this is a point I really wanted to drive home -- the trend that there are way too many startups out there today without a unique differentiator.

Now that entrepreneurs have finally gotten off of social data aggregators and consumer mobile apps as foundations for a company (now it's cloud and enterprise, if you're keeping score), they've started leaning on copycatting existing companies with minor changes. This was a trickle back in 2010 but it's an absolute gusher now.

Like: "We're going to do what AirBnB is doing but we're going to do it only for mobile homes and only on mobile devices and we're going to do it harder."

Keep in mind, this trend didn't just spring forth from the Challenge, nor was is the first and only time I've recognized it in the last couple years. It's been building over time, and it's got to stop.

To me, this kind of full-speed-ahead on someone else's idea is more dangerous than wantrepreneurship (the practice of having an idea and just going from event to event hoping to get funded at some point), because copycatting means you're spending a lot of time and money building a product and a company without the proper due diligence.

Vidburn is probably a textbook example. Over the course of a weekend (Dec 14-16), they released their video-texting/sharing/disappearing app to the app store, then larger and more-hyped picture-texting/sharing/disappearing app SnapChat immediately announced their video offering, and by Monday morning we were reading about Facebook's impending release of its own picture-AND-video-texting/sharing/disappearing app.

In this town your luck can change just that quickly.

I also wish I could have spent more time talking about GoPhish and Winston Howes' impressive presentation, especially considering the fact that he's a college sophomore. The presentation itself was also unique.

He wasn't handing out samples or showing video or pulling heartstrings. He spent a little time explaining phishing and the damage it can do, especially at the organizational level, then he literally explained how GoPhish stopped it, including diving probably a little deeper than he should have on the technical explanation side.

Although admittedly, I had to have him explain the tech to me again one-on-one before I truly grasped how the product did what it did.

There was a moment during his presentation when I was looking around at the other audience members and judges and making sure everyone was seeing what I was seeing. That's how good the presentation was, without fanfare or histrionics.

Problem + Solution = Profit.

There's a lesson there for every early-stage startup, especially the very early stage. If you need two out of the three minutes of your elevator pitch to explain WHY your solution is needed, you're probably cooked. On the other hand, if you spend those same two minutes explaining HOW your solution solves a known problem, then you're totally on the right track.

Finally, I wish I could have spent more column-inches on the fact that Howes' head is in the right place.

During the remaining rounds of the Challenge over the winter and spring, he's setting up a private alpha and a closed public beta. At that point, Howes says he'll know enough about the viability of the product to determine whether or not to move on.

Yeah. Three years in the making, a win under their belt, and public and private sector commercial curiosity, and they know enough to know they don't know about the viability yet.

How can you not like that?

All in all it was nice to see a young entrepreneur who's in it because he sees a problem and a solution and feels like he can make it happen. Dammit if we don't need more of those.