What is Riskier?

What is riskier? Doing something truly great with potential of failing, or doing something average that blends into the crap?

Aaron With, the chief copywriter at Groupon posed this question at SXSW in a session I was lucky enough to choose to attend. The question has stuck with me.

I believe this is a question that businesses will have no choice but to ask themselves in the coming decade. The internet has caused a lot of things, but the biggest thing that it’s done is remove virtually every barrier to entry in most industries.

What that means is that companies that have established businesses that they want to protect will lose to lean startups without legacy businesses.

Gone are the days where the half life of most companies is 50 years. I’d argue that it’s more like 10 – 15 years these days. Just look at internet giants like Yahoo and MySpace. Just 5 years ago, they were fighting it out for “biggest site on the internet”, and where are they today?

To compete in tomorrow’s business environment, people need to throw away their hubris and excuses they make about why startups just won’t work. They need to accept that there’s something right about what these startups doing1.

As an example of someone willing to forego something traditional and crappy, take a look SXSW keynote speaker Felicia Day. I had never heard of her before, but she is a fascinating person. If you haven’t heard of her, she is the host of an online gaming web video series, The Guild. She started it by bootstrapping an episode each month. As it grew and became more popular, viewers would literally throw money at her to keep it going.

TV studios took notice and presented her with various show ideas to run it on mainstream television. There was one catch: she’d lose the rights to the show.

Felicia said in her keynote interview that she seriously considered it, but decided to wait. Then something even better came along – Microsoft offered to sponsor the show. She’d still retain the rights and production, and Microsoft would be an advertiser to a highly engaged audience. They would also make it available on the Xbox, and after a certain period of time, she’d be free to publish on Netflix and any other mediums.

Felicia could have fit into the old way of doing things. Let someone else turn a popular show to crap. Instead, she took a risk. She said no while the TV studios stood by their old ways of doing things.

Today she retains the rights to a very popular show that is a full-time gig for her.

It’s riskier to blend into the crap, to fit the status quo.

The internet has eased us into a perfect market for information, and that has caused a new generation of very discerning consumers. Very few products in the future will be necessities. To stand out you have to be great – because if you’re not great, I’ll go try the next alternative.

To succeed you’re going to have to avoid being crappy and do something memorable. That’s true of products and that’s true of a career.

That’s how Groupon has a high like becoming the fastest growing company ever and a low like their Super Bowl ad campaign. They’re willing to try something new, mess up, and apologize when they mess up.

  1. I say this as a person that privately criticizes many startups in my industry []
March 24, 2011