Most people take “Build something people want” to mean “Pick a problem to solve and solve it well.” This is not sufficient to build a world-changing company. ”Why now?” is the question entrepreneurs really need to answer, because it encompasses two important and closely related concepts: Why have previous attempts at this idea failed? What enabling factors have emerged that enable you to succeed today?
The world is full of smart people who have the same idea.
There are a lot of smart people out there. At least five of them have already tried to solve the problem you’re trying to solve. But you haven’t heard about any of these people.
Why would a similar product in an extremely similar world be vastly more successful? Most entrepreneurs essentially say: “There are other smart people who saw this opportunity. But none of them were smart enough to figure out the right product/marketing/sales strategy to succeed.” Betting that other people are less capable than you is a bad idea. For you to be massively successful where multiple startups before you have failed, something in the world has to have changed. If the world has not changed in some fundamental way, you too will fail.
Some common answers to “Why Now?” are:
- A new enabling technology has emerged (GPS)
- Consumer behavior has changed (Consumers understand the idea of “the cloud”)
- New distribution channels (The iTunes App store)
- Legislative changes (Environmental regulations drive clean tech)
To succeed, you have to clearly articulate “Why now?” You need to have a thesis about why the world is different today and be able to back that up with some data. As a corollary, if you cannot clearly articulate why now is the right time for this business — and why two, three, five or seven years ago were not the right times — then you are probably going to fail, just like the other very intelligent entrepreneur who previously tried to solve this problem.
This is not about timing a market. This is about a framework of thought to evaluate the opportunities that are presented to you as an entrepreneur. If you see an opening that clearly answers the question, then you can capitalize on it. Also, this is not about multiple startups competing against each other in a short window of time. This is about comparing a startup today against a similar startup from an earlier point in time. Determining which of Startup A or Startup B will do better today is a different question. However, you can still ask whether or not today is the right time for either of them to try.
“Why now?” does not say that successful entrepreneurs happen to be in the right place at the right time. It reinforces how much execution really matters. Not only do you have to come up with a brilliant insight and build a product that people want, but you have to build your company with a deep understanding about how the world was, is, and will be. Doing all of this is hard.