It’s an interesting question and one I’ve never tried to answer directly in writing. But it’s also a question we attempt to answer every day in our firm as we evaluate thousands of new startups every year.
Let’s take ten of the most popular new consumer technology products in recent years (with a couple of our portfolio companies in the mix): iPhone, Facebook, Wii, Hulu, FlipCam, Rock Band, Mafia Wars, Blogger, Pandora, and Twitter and let’s try to describe in one sentence or less why they broke out (feel free to debate the reasons they broke out in the comments):
iPhone – mobile browser with a killer touch screen interface
Facebook – a social net with real utility
Wii – gesture based user interface for gaming
Hulu – your favorite TV shows in a fantastic web UI
FlipCam – a video cam that fits in your pocket comfortably
Rock Band – everyone can be a rock star for a few minutes
Mafia Wars – a natively social game built for social nets
Blogger – a printing press for everyone
Pandora – drop dead simple personalized radio
Twitter – blogging everyone can do in less than a minute
In most of these cases, the breakthrough product or service delivered a new experience to consumers that they had never had before. Sure there were social nets before Facebook, but none allowed you to run your life the way Facebook does for my kids. Sure there were browsers on phones before the iPhone, but there hadn’t been one that you could actually use like you use a browser on a computer. Sure there had been personalized internet radio services before Pandora but not one that was drop dead simple and delivered a great experience.
So it seems to me that consumers are driven to new experiences that are simple and useful and/or entertaining. It is not enough to be the first to market with a new technology. You have to be the first to market with a version of the technology that is simple and easy to use.
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