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Innovate or improve – how to develop a successful business idea

Having an original idea is not always key to a successful business. Sometimes, improving on an existing idea is worth a lot more.

An original and innovative idea is typically viewed as the creative spark that ignites starting a business. But reality could be different for many successful start-ups.

While a ‘Eureka’ lightbulb moment for a new business concept may be an exciting way to become your own boss, it could also be full of risks – in some cases making the path of business evolution rather than revolution a less risky path to success.

Many of the world’s most successful businesses have taken flight by replicating or reinventing another company’s business idea.

One example is – the world’s first video hosting site that launched in 1997 – which proved a little ahead of the curve in terms of bandwidth support for streaming video. Fast forward to 2005, when technology and internet speeds had improved, and companies such as YouTube took the same business idea and made a huge success of it.

Recent examples involve large social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook, owners of Instagram, took the idea of ‘stories’ from Snapchat and implemented it onto their own social media platform in 2016, where Instagram Stories was born. Many companies update and change an existing business concept and then launch it with great success.

If the lack of an original business idea is holding you back from becoming your own boss, take a leaf out of big businesses’ books and look at what successful companies are doing for inspiration.

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Disadvantages of original business ideas

In an ideal world, coming up with an original business idea could be a sure-fire bet to success – but often, there could be a reason that it’s not already available in the market. Bringing a new idea to an already established market can be a challenge. Disadvantages can include:

  • Cost and time – Investing time and money into an idea that might not take off can leave you out of pocket.
  • Customers – Finding customers can be tough. They may not be ready for your idea or even know they need it.
  • Starting from scratch – Coming up with an original idea means you also must develop everything from the ground up: pricing, packaging, marketing, operations and distribution. This can be a lengthy process with no guarantee of success.

Taking inspiration from existing businesses may be a smart move as you’ll have a better understanding of what has been ‘tried and tested’. A lack of competition for your business idea may indicate that it’s not as marketable as you might think. Competition is good, as it confirms an existing market and customers who want or need your product or service.

Advantages of taking inspiration from other businesses

Taking the path well-travelled is logical, as a lot of market research has already been done, and you can understand the size and nature of your potential customer base.

Understanding how customer needs are evolving, or where existing products and services fail, can open the door to a start-up launching an improved offering.

Improving an already on-the-market product or service does not involve the slavish copying of another business and many businesses have their products protected by intellectual property laws.

Improving a product or service can involve examining an existing business and exploring how you can make it better.

Questions you may want to ask include:

  • How is the product/service marketed and sold?
  • How is it packaged and delivered?
  • What about pricing?
  • What do customers think or say about the product?
  • What new technologies are emerging to make a better product?
  • What new markets are opening up that may want to buy an existing type of product.

Examine social media and review sites for similar businesses and make a note of customer complaints. How could a product or service be improved to solve those complaints? Often it can be easier to update a product and win customers to your business by spotting gaps in existing offerings and launching a better product.

How to brainstorm a business idea

Research is vital for creating your own business. Look at businesses that are already successful for inspiration, imitate their success and improve where they fail. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

1. Examine different business models

Take inspiration from other successful businesses and apply their business model to your product or service.

For example, several successful businesses, including the Dollar Shave Club, rejected the traditional way shaving goods were sold on an ad-hoc, as needed basis and instead adopted a monthly subscription model.

Rather than heading to the shops, customers can have products delivered regularly to their door. Could a subscription model work for your business idea?

2. Look at different consumers

Maybe there’s a product or service that’s aimed solely for men; could you reinvent it for a female audience?

Look at businesses that are thriving and see if you can market similar products towards a different type of consumer. Consider making child-friendly versions or adapting a product for individuals with disabilities.

Thinking about a broader market might help bring forward more ideas as you try to adapt the original.

3. Can you make your products cheaper or a more premium prospect?

Take inspiration from successful products and research for a better, cheaper way to make it – which may help to increase your profit. Another angle is to take a product and upscale it so you can sell it at a premium.

For example, popcorn has been a popular snack produced cheaply in the same way for hundreds of years. Recently, clever entrepreneurs took this basic snack and applied some premium thinking. Hence the explosion of the gourmet popcorn market with lots of brands fighting it out for customer approval of the popular flavours that go way beyond the basic sweet or salted.

4. Can you make it more sustainable?

As the climate crisis continues, sustainable businesses are becoming more in demand with customers. Could an existing product or service be made with sustainable and ethical practices in mind? Updating a product in line with sustainability could allow more room for investments Opens in new window and attract more customers.

If you need some inspiration, read our guide on Sustainable start-ups – 8 business ideas to launch Opens in new window.


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Reference to any organisation, business and event on this page does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation from the British Business Bank or the UK Government. Whilst we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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