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Website House of Cards (Commentary)

Posted on 3.22.2010

On Inspiration & Innovation

It’s a commonly held notion that most small businesses fail within the first few years of their existence. The Small Business Administration reports that just 66 percent last past the first two years — but that does not tell the whole story. There is no benefit to discussing the percentage of enterprises that do not make it if we never address the ways to prevent a failure from happening.

From lack of experience to insufficient capital, there is a long list of reasons for small business failure. On the World Wide Web, however, you can be certain that the percentage of failure is far higher — thanks to a lower cost of “entry” than traditional offline businesses. A belief has somehow been established (however wrongly) that anyone can be successful on the Web. The reality is far different. But the true reasons for online success will open a whole new world of possibilities.

Membership has its Rewards, Ownership Offers Riches
As you have probably discovered in your career as a Web professional, it is uncommon to achieve genuine success (let’s define it as wealth and/or notoriety) by building a website or service that essentially mimics, is identical in nature, or that ultimately supports or is reliant on another business entirely. We have all seen “clone” websites launch to much fanfare, only to ultimately fade away once users realize there is no significant improvement upon the original. Simply put, there is more value in owning a technology than leveraging someone else’s solution. This is where many of us fall short in the pursuit of success.

Take a look at leaders in your industry to see this in action. Would Amazon be an e-commerce leader if it were not for its expertise in product recommendation technology? Would Google be a leader in advertising if it didn’t have a mastery of natural search? It is the technology that truly differentiates us from the competition, creates opportunity for new business and offers value to end-users.

However, instead of focusing on innovation in new opportunities and developing unique solutions to existing challenges the majority of Web professionals take technology shortcuts and focus instead on “borrowing” inspiration from others. There is clearly some merit and value in doing so, but the result more often than not is that hundreds of second-rate technology clones flood the market behind one industry leader and hundreds of other followers and hangers-on down the line.

The problem of being a follower or member of someone else’s community is that your success is, in part, reliant on the success of others. You could have a huge audience and the most impressive user interface ever developed, but what happens when the API you are using to support that service closes up shop? Is your entire business model reliant on the performance of another? If yes, you have a significant problem on your hands. Your website is, in no uncertain terms, is a house of cards. It could collapse at any moment.

The unfair truth is that too often websites generate the attention of others based not on what has been created or provided, but rather who has built it and who is using it. When you have both a unique technology and an audience of some worth, however, you are on your way to achieving long-term success. To get there you need a technology — but not just any. You need your own.

The point is, when you take on substantially more risk by investing in your own technology solution, it carries the potential for far greater reward than any piggy-backed model of business. If you had your choice between spending $1,000 on a website that mirrored or supported the features of another, or $5,000 for a unique Web application that you owned outright, which would you choose? That might depend greatly on a variety of factors. But count on the fact there will be greater rewards should you choose the path of innovation, and not inspiration alone.

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