Startup Marketing: Be The Lesser Of Two Necessary Evils

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Startup Marketing: Be The Lesser Of Two Necessary Evils


Before I offend any of you or scare you off, when I say "necessary evil", I'm speaking in a broader sense about things we simply don't like.  I am not suggesting that you actually be evil.  Google has demonstrated quite well the value of not being evil (or at a minimum, the value of stating that you don't want to be evil).

So, what do I mean when I say startups should try to be the lesser of two evils?  This is easiest explained by an example.

Necessary Evil:  Taxes. 

Most of us hate taxes.  It's not just the paying money part, it's the preparing (and the dreading of the preparing) that makes this "evil".  But, for most of us, it's something we *have* to do.  So, when a company like Intuit comes along and offers TurboTax, it falls into that category of "lesser of two necessary evils".  Of course, you don't have to buy tax preparation software.  But, you do have to file taxes.  Intuit took the necessary evil of having to figure all the stuff out yourself (or hiring someone to do it) and being less evil than the other things you could do.

To re-emphasize this point:  I don't think any of us gets up one morning and decides we want to buy tax preparation software.  We recognize that there is a necessary evil that needs to be addressed and we pick the lesser of the evils (which varies from person to person). 

My point is this:  If you're building a startup (particularly a bootstrapped startup), it is much cheaper to try and market something that is necessary (even if it's evil).  There are lots of entrepreneurs that go after fun ideas like music sharing, YASG (Yet Another Solitaire Game) and consumer internet type stuff.  There's nothing wrong with these ideas.  But, I think there are a disproportionately high number of people pursuing these ideas simply because they're so much fun.  The number of stories we read regarding these fun ideas is also disproportionately high (we don't ever hear about the thousands of entrepreneurs that were not successful pursuing these ideas so we get a distorted view).

So, if you're a first time entrepreneur and are actually looking to build a nice, profitable, sustainable business (and having a decent chance at doing so), I'd advise looking for a market that has a number of "options" to address some necessary evil -- and strive to be the least evil of them.  It's not the only way to start a company, but I'd argue that it's not a bad way, and a reasonably pragmatic way.  And, I'm all about pragmatism.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Jul 27, 2007


A good friend of mine made a great analogy....You have vitamins or you have painkillers. Vitamins are a nice to have (but you really don't need them), but Painkillers you *must* have and can't live without. He was a strong advocate of building painkiller companies, which something I agree with and that I currently building (prospectmarkets).

posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 at 3:05 PM by Chandra Bajpai

What an intelligent post. You have very politely told a lot of people that they are pursuing a space with: 1. Too many competitors 2. Too little (if any) money / pain points Entrepreneurs are rewarded for fixing problems.

posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 at 5:57 PM by Jay (living in First Life)

Dharmesh - is it fair to say that the qualifying phrase is "looking to build a nice, profitable, sustainable business"? It seems like some of the more successful (in addition to merely nice and profitable) companies of the past year ot two seem to be very much in the "vitamin" category. Facebook, Flickr, Digg, Reddit, etc. - they don't exactly solve a pressing need the way Intuit/TurboTax does. Yet, they are poster children.

Otoh, many of the 37s apps certainly try to make something painful, less painful: like managing projects or customers etc.

You certainly make a good point though.

posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 at 6:01 PM by Raghu Srinivasan

Good post. Reminds me of some good reads from Eric Sink. A concrete example would be nice though. It's easy to say that 'needs' are easier to market, but often times needs involve significant liability (i.e. would you recommend bootstrapping a tax-software company to someone?).

posted on Friday, July 27, 2007 at 7:51 PM by johnrob

Wonderfully stated. I am founding what I think solves a real problem, but people think its not sexy since its too Web 1.0. Your post makes me feel better

posted on Sunday, July 29, 2007 at 10:46 PM by Big V

Good point. This is exactly what we evaluated when moving from a purely service based to a saas based company - atleast you can sleep better at night knowing that you are solving a real problem for a lot of people...

posted on Monday, July 30, 2007 at 12:19 PM by Sahil Parikh

Great post, I'm all for pragmatic. I haven't seen a "profitable, sustainable" internet consumer company in a long while.

posted on Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 1:50 PM by Phil Crosby

So i read this article. of several hundred words that basically says, you can start a company thats not evil., then went on to explain extremely primitive principles about how not to be evil. You don't get upmodded on reddit because you have no content/ substance and you regurgitate yourself a lot to make your blogs longer.

posted on Saturday, August 04, 2007 at 4:44 AM by Xiiao

... but it is so much more fun to do something you love and are passionate about... but I do agree with your point! - CH

posted on Tuesday, August 14, 2007 at 12:02 AM by traveler

I am in complete agreement with you traveler. It is hard to be objectionable about stuff you love. For those projects I am passionate about and that do not meet the criteria, I set aside time and additional resources to work on them - weekends, evenings and friends and family members.

posted on Tuesday, August 14, 2007 at 7:56 AM by Prasad Thammineni

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