A friend of mine has worked at an internet startup that shall remain nameless since 2006. During that time, the company has been unable to actually produce a clear product and has changed direction several times.
When I asked him what the culture there was like, he told me that the leader of the business was obsessed with being "the next Facebook" or "the next Twitter" or "the next Google." He was constantly focused on what these big successes had done.
Some small business management types might tell you that he's doing a good thing in trying to emulate these big success stories. However, there's a big difference between emulation of success and jealousy of success - and being on the wrong side of that line can cause a great deal of business problems.
Almost every small businessperson has a business that they admire. I certainly have several businesses that I admire greatly - and, yes, Google is one of them. I respect many aspects of their business and think that by studying them, I can learn quite a lot. Do I want to be "the next Google"? Absolutely not.
I'm going to use Google as an example here because they're a recent enormous success story and they're a business that countless people look at with envy. Countless advertising-based search engines have been thrown up by jealous entrepreneurs. All of them have failed to unseat Google.
Businesses succeed when they produce something special, something different than what can already be found out there. Google succeeded because they were able to offer great internet searching for free, and their secret was tying targeted advertising to those search results. If you're in the search business and you're striving to be "the next Google" by figuring out new ways to bundle search results and ads, you're wasting your time. Yahoo is figuring this out the hard way.
What do you offer that stands out? What "secret" do you have that enables you to offer it? That should always be the core of your business. Let's look at these elements.
What do you offer that stands out? The only way you're going to achieve the success you want is to offer something that stands out among the competition. If you're merely going to build a "better" advertising-funded search engine, Google will crush you. You have to offer something different, and when you're doing that, you're not merely being "the next Google."
What "secret" do you have that enables you to offer it? You have a great idea that is going to cause people to beat a path to your door, but unless you have a way to turn those exchanges into something profitable, you're either going to fail or, if you're lucky, get bought out.
I'll use two examples from small businesses in my own area.
One restaurant business succeeds by simply trying to be the best "bistro" style restaurant in a college town. They offer a great meal with very elegant ambience for a reasonable price in an area where there isn't a large population - and thus not a lot of competition in that niche. How do they make this work if there isn't a lot of people? They placed the restaurant near the campus and focused directly on reaching out to the college professors in the area, finding out what they wanted and needed from such a bistro. The restaurant looked at the town, identified exactly who would be their primary clientele, and focused entirely on meeting their needs. By doing that, they strongly attracted a particular customer base right off the bat.
Another business, a comic book store, succeeds purely through customer service. They make a very specific point to have all of their employees greet people immediately upon entry, offer to help them with what they want to find, and then leave them alone. However, if you ask for just about anything imaginable there, they will try to find it for you. Their employees are incredibly well-informed about virtually everything sold in the shop and can answer almost any question given to them quickly and correctly. Their prices are higher than what you find online, but they have cultivated such a strong customer base due to their service that they do incredibly well and have opened a second shop.
You can learn from what others have done, but you will never succeed by merely being "the next Google" or whatever business intrigues you. You have to beat your own path. What will you offer that stands out? What is your "secret" that enables you to offer it? Answer those questions first.
Image credit: Detlef Schobert