I probably spend more than 90 percent of my time reviewing products and talking to startups. One of the things I find myself saying most often is: “your product needs to be 10x better than the closest alternative.” Okay, great, but is it ever that simple?
Do you have what it takes to build a product that’s ten times better than what currently exists? How do you even go about that? We can assume the products we use today were not built by idiots — they are often really smart people. So, building something exponentially better than its closest alternative requires a fundamentally different way of thinking. Elon Musk puts it nicely:
“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is … we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing… it’s like slight iterations on a theme.”
According to Musk, First principles “is a physics way of looking at the world…what that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there…that takes a lot more mental energy.”
When solving a problem, entrepreneurs often look at competing products or existing ways of doing things and try to make it all “better”, by adding features to what already exists. But this rarely leads to success. Those competitors can just as easily add those features, and there will be no real reason for users to even try your product. Worse still, you may come off looking like a clone with added features.
One way to get around this is to consider the outcome you want to achieve, and ask yourself, “How would I think about this problem if these existing products did not exist? How would I build this solution if nothing else was doing the ‘job’ before? What’s the best way to solve this problem without any preconceived ideas?” I‘d argue that the car was invented using the First principle thinking because an improvement to a cart is not the car — it’s a faster horse!
Rest assured, this is difficult and uncomfortable: our thinking processes are bound by convention and analogy to prior experiences. Those are safe. But often, the best way to solve a problem is not to improve on what exists, it is to create an entirely different (better) solution. And often, the largest rewards are reserved for those who solve the hardest problems.