Corbett Barr

Lifestyle Business Weekly

Everything is Derivative

Everything is Derivative

Over the past three months, I’ve talked and worked with a lot of smart, talented and motivated entrepreneurs-in-the-making who all get hung up on some variation of the same issue.

The problem is usually described like this: “I can’t decide what my business should be about. Every topic is already covered by someone else. How can I create something real and unique and not derivative?

This causes some serious stress and anxiety in entrepreneurs. There’s the feeling that your business has to be built on some new monumental breakthrough concept to succeed. It’s a sticking point that some people never get past, which makes sense if you’re truly looking for an original idea.

You could spend your entire life looking for an original idea. The truth is, they don’t exist. Every idea is derivative.

And this is why so many entrepreneurs get stuck. They operate under the assumption that the best business opportunities lie in those built on completely original ideas. Then they enter into the cycle of “think of a business idea, research the competition, find something remarkably similar to your ‘original idea,’ get discouraged, head back to the drawing board.”

A breakthrough can only happen when you realize that 1) ideas are all derivative in some way or another, and 2) you don’t need a completely original idea to succeed in business.

The biggest businesses in the world were built on derivative ideas.

Think about some of the biggest business successes of the past two generations. Were they built on completely original ideas, or were they derivative ideas? Just look at all of Apple’s products, for example. The Mac? It wasn’t the first personal computer. The iPod? It wasn’t the first personal digital music player. The iPhone? It wasn’t the first smartphone. (Some Apple fanboys might not remember it that way, but it’s true).

What about Microsoft? The MS-DOS operating system? It wasn’t the first operating system for personal computers. Windows? It wasn’t the first graphical operating system. Excel and Word? They weren’t the first spreadsheet or word processor.

We could go on and on here, with example after example of wildly successful businesses that were built on obviously derivative ideas. Google, Facebook, Pepsi, Walmart. Lady Gaga.

Sure, there are plenty of ideas that have never been executed on before. The Segway was a pretty original product, but it wasn’t a completely original idea. The Segway was actually based on a self-balancing wheelchair that Dean Kamen had already built.

Ideas that have never been brought to life before carry a lot of risk. There are too many unknowns, too much research and development required, too much consumer education and too much hunting for customers required. If you’re going to develop an idea like that, you’d better have deep pockets or patient investors.

For our purposes, we’re not talking about creating the next Segway or Microsoft though, right? If you’re reading this blog, I’ll assume you want to create something that supports your lifestyle or your family and makes a positive contribution to the world without so much risk.

In that case, you shouldn’t worry about whether your idea is derivative. Just accept that it will be derivative in some ways. Accept that potentially dozens of other people are working on the same basic idea somewhere in the world. The important thing is how you make your idea appealing to your potential customers.

To do that, start with a proven business idea and layer on some unique aspects. Innovate. Serve a specific target audience and tailor everything to it. Combine two things that haven’t been combined before. Or, inject your personality and you’ll guarantee your business is unique (there is only one you).

For example, take minimalism and apply it to business. Take travel and combine it with changing the world. Take a design studio and bare your soul to your customers. Everett Bogue, Chris Guillebeau and Sarah J. Bray each took an existing idea (minimalism, travel, design) and made it their own. They each have wildly successful small businesses, and no “monumental breakthrough idea” was required. They each understood how to create a unique selling proposition.

Innovation drives business, and innovation is an incremental process. You take something that exists and push it a little further. The goal of innovation is positive change, to make someone or something better, and the easiest way to do that is to improve upon an existing idea.

Maybe you’re worried about adding value, creating something genuine, and not just adding to the “noise” out there. Then take a stand, pursue your passions, be a leader, inspire people. There is value in that. Experiences matter in life more than possessions. Give your customers an experience they’ll never forget.

Other factors are just as important as the originality of your idea.

Creating a unique selling proposition is only one of many factors that will determine if your business succeeds or fails.

Just as important is whether you do something you’re passionate about, and something you’re good at. Without passion, you might not put in the effort required to succeed. Without being truly good at what you do, you won’t be able to provide a standout return on investment to your customers.

Your business success also depends on whether people are willing to pay for your products or services. By improving on an existing and proven product or service idea, you’ll already know that people will pay for it.

If you start by creating something that has never been offered before (think Segway again), you won’t really know if people will want to buy it until you’ve invested lots of hard work and money into development.

The naysayers will say otherwise.

The common beliefs about invention and business ideas will lead some people around you to tell you you’re going to fail. They’ll say, “that’s already been done before. Why would someone pay you to do that when XX already does it?”

Don’t listen to the people around you who have never tried. Learn from those who have succeeded.

And remember, failure is part of the process.

I’ve started plenty of businesses that failed, but those failures were just part of what it took for me to succeed. It was part of my journey, and I’m happy to have gone through it. There will be plenty more failures in my future, and I say bring ’em on.

Most of my failures started with misunderstanding what a viable idea really is.

I’ve done things that were too derivative and didn’t answer the question “why should I buy from you?” I’ve also tried to build ideas that had never been successfully brought to life before, only to spend years of many peoples’ time and millions of investment dollars to find out that people wouldn’t pay for what we thought was a breakthrough idea. It was heartbreaking.

But, I persevered. I kept trying. I tuned out the naysayers. And eventually I learned how to use business ideas that work for me.

Now I have a growing little lifestyle business and I get to do things I love every day. The products and services I release aren’t built on radically new ideas, but I’ve made sure the offerings are unique, that they solve direct problems and that they provide enormous value to my customers.

What more could I ask for? I get to work with the people I’m passionate about helping: smart, motivated individuals who want to experience the ultimate in personal freedom through a successful lifestyle business. I’m just glad I finally figured out that’s what I want to do and that it wouldn’t require a revolutionary business idea to get there.

How do you turn an idea into a viable business?

I’d love to hear how you innovate on existing ideas to create business opportunities. Please share in the comments!

photo by James Jordan

Corbett Barr

A weekly curated email of useful links for people interested in lifestyle businesses and independent entrepreneurship.


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  1. True stuff, Corbett.

    The idea is only 5 or 10% of what makes something successful; the implementation and the execution are what’s important.

    Apple didn’t invent the mp3 player, but lordy they implemented and executed better than anyone else.


  2. Corbett,

    One thing I’ve heard many times over the course of the BlogcastFM interview is that we often won’t end up where we started. I think that most people don’t realize that and so they don’t even start. I think you are right that there aren’t any completely original ideas. I think that people have to realize that you can carve out a small sub niche in a large mega niche and still make money.

    Naysayers always seem to emerge out of the woodworks when you blaze your own trail. But I think that’s largely because they see you pulling away from the pack and it probably kind of freaks them out.

    • That’s the thing. In so many cases people would be better off if they just started something instead of over-analyzing everything. Starting is a scary thing though, and sometimes that deep initial analysis might really be an excuse or a way to cover up fear of failure.

  3. Hi Corbett,

    Good stuff. You’re right in many aspects, many people spend so much time trying to create next big thing, when in reality there are already many proven success blueprints out there. Y’ just gotta keep your ears open and be updated on current information to always reinvent the wheel.

    Hope all is well with you!


    • Thanks, Parker. Yeah, and a lot of innovation actually happens along the way, after you’ve already started working on something. Look at Twitter and Groupon. Both were small successful pieces born out of much bigger projects that were on the verge of failing.

  4. This article truely speaks to me. I thinky frustration has been figuring out that my ideas don’t have to be original. But the USP is what will set me apart. Thanks for this and really enjoy both is your sites

  5. Anda

    Great post, Corbett. Another aspect of the not starting anything because you don’t have an original idea, is not starting because, or until, you think you’ve perfected your product or service to stand out from everything else out there. People keep spending more time on research and narrowing their niche, that the product never gets built, or someone else steps in and fills the gap. Products always evolve, and given the ease of starting an online business, people should do their best to get something out there. It will work, or not. But you won’t learn unless you try.

    • That’s a great point, Anda. I’ve seen that plenty of times before (and have been guilty of it myself). I think that’s why the “release early and often” strategy has been so popular and successful.

  6. Great article, Corbett. Ideas are like living beings, that jump from one mind to another, inhabiting their own world. Who can own them? What we can do is bring them to life. On persistence, this quote from Winston Churchill comes to mind: “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

  7. I think that positive thinking is so important…I just mentioned this on another blog as well. If you think ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ‘This idea is too derivative,’ ‘This won’t work because someone else has already done it,’ etc, etc, etc….then that is exactly what you will get. I think people are truly unaware of just how powerful their thoughts are in creating their own reality.

    Now, this doesn’t mean to go all willy-nilly about it. Do you something you love, help contribute and then create a successful business model out of that. Look at what others have done and improve or add upon it.

    This is awesome advice here – I like it!

    • It’s true, Nate. A lot of the cycle people go through is the result of negative thinking. Thanks for bringing that up.

  8. Brilliant post Corbett!…This is the exact sticking point Im experiencing right now. I’ve been brainstorming for months trying to come up with the exact, most original concept to center a blog around. And I have not even began to blog because I’m scared I’m not going to be original and fail. This post made me realize that maybe I don’t need a new groundbreaking topic, perhaps just putting my unique twist on an already tapped niche is what I need to do.

    • Make it interesting and make it your own. Put your voice and passion into it and deliver undeniable value to your readers. People will notice.

  9. Hi Corbett

    I’m new here to your blog, and all I could say as I went down the list of comments, was “me too” to most of them. I’m about to launch a new product, but it is in line with my existing bricks and mortar business, and I think that I’ve found a derivitive or angle that no-one has used yet, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.

    However I find that my actions are made much harder because I have limited cash resources and also I’m not as “techie” as I would like to think that I am, so therefore I find little frustrations that are holding me back from just getting on and doing it.

    I enjoyed reading this post and the comments, thank you Corbett.

    • Cheers, Diane. Thanks for sharing and good luck with the new product. I’d love to hear more when you can share it.

  10. Great advice, Corbett and BTW I love your new site look! Think about it – McDonald’s didn’t invent the burger.

  11. Awesome post Corbett! Its true so many of us struggle to create that one unique killer idea without realizing there is nothing new under the sun. Not even a new thought. All has been, its just evolving. I like the idea of merging two great ideas. Like taking something existing and adding the latest technology to take it to the next level. I was recently a part of a group coaching program that was just awesome. After the program I read one of the suggested books and saw where the coach got most of her substance (re-worked of course). She simply used YouTube, Ustream and Facebook and took it to a whole new level. Now she’s making a killing!

    • It’s funny when you start to notice just how derivative many businesses are. Some don’t even attempt to put a new spin or unique approach on things. And yet, those businesses can still be wildly successful. It makes you wonder why so many entrepreneurs make things so difficult for themselves.

  12. Oh, and to add to that. Much of the ideas I read in that book I had read in someone else’s book years earlier..again, re-worked of course. :)

  13. Jeanie

    When I go out hunting for my resources, tribe, partners…and some are doing what I want to earn $$ on for free, it throws me for a loop.

    I love the flow of ideas through culture. And the infinite connections and mutations of ideas *ought* to convince anyone their idea is just fine.

    Thank you for another paradigm shift. :)

    I have some newb techie questions about thesis before I buy it from your aff link..will you email me permission to infringe on your time please?

  14. Awesome. The fear of having a derivative product or service is completely unnecessary. No matter what, you are you, and that means your own view point and value to offer.

    Your thoughts on expanding on an existing idea are great as well. What I’m working on right now fits right into that concept. It’s a new play off an already existing business model, and as far as I can see in my research so far not a single other person is doing it. It’s scary, but exciting too.

    And if it fails, who really cares? More lessons learned and it’s on to the next thing.

    A great read, Corbett. Got me excited for working the rest of the day.

  15. You have opened my eyes with these facts Corbett. To be honest I find myself struggling to find somethings original, but as you have stated everything is derivative. Now I need to align my struggles on this wisdom.

    Thanks for this piece. :-)

    • Your business needs to have a unique selling proposition, but the problem it solves doesn’t have to be new.

  16. Del

    Hey Corbett,

    Great post. To quote something in Rework from 37Signals. I “scratch my own itch.” If there is something that I’m continually looking for and that I don’t see available to me then I pursue it. I also ask others if they’re interested too. That’s how I started organizing workshops on self-sufficiency. So far so good!

    • 37Signals is a great example, Del. There were plenty of project management tools out there, but Basecamp was still able to find a nice little market for itself, without innovating all that much. Congrats on your workshops and good luck.

  17. This one really hit the target. Trying to find that unique and “not-done-before” idea can become a unbearable stress for an entrepreneur. You innovate and analyze, find some idea you feel passionate about, find out it’s been done before and get depressed. Few rounds in this cycle and you decide to quit. “I can’t think of anything that hasn’t been done before.”

    You just reminded us about the reason for that. Thanks Corbett!

  18. The same is true of stories. Shakespeare borrowed his plots from folktales he heard in pubs and bars and on country lanes.

    I’m inspired by the words of Jim Jarmusch: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-…Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.””

    • Damn, that is an awesome quote from Jarmusch. I hadn’t heard it before. Thanks so much for sharing.

  19. You got this idea from me :-D

    I admit this is something that has stumped me at one point. I didn’t think I was “unique enough” to be of any value. But I realize that Burger King does pretty well despite there being a McDonald’s like Carmen mentioned (let alone a Wendy’s and all the other options). People like certain aspects of different things. Is a Ford really THAT much different than a Chevy? Not at all, but both have rabid fans.

    There are obvious examples in every field. People are all different, and have different likes, wants, needs and tastes. How many people read the exact same passage out of a religious text and interpret it in vastly different ways?

    Everyone sees different things through the same glasses. It makes the world more fun that we don’t all like the same things.

    • Of course, those big brands have the advantage of multi-million-dollar marketing budgets. For those of us with smaller businesses, we definitely need to focus on smaller markets and make our businesses stand out in more specific ways.

  20. I appreciate this post Corbett, and I’m glad to have discovered your blog. I’ve been standing at the edge of the affiliate marketing pool for quite a while now, unsure of where and when to jump in.

    When I started my blog, I felt a little like I was just throwing another one on the pile, so to speak. But before long a distinctive voice did emerge, the readers showed up, and I don’t really feel like a follower anymore in that arena.

    I think the same think will happen with affiliate marketing if I just get started somewhere. I’ll pick a method I like, and run with it.

    • Hey David, welcome and thanks for the comment.

      I get the same comments from people over and over. “It’s too late to get started with X.” Or, “the X market is over saturated.” Meanwhile other people who aren’t worried about finding the opportunity of a lifetime just take something, put a unique spin on it, provide killer value to their community and start building success, one day at a time.

      It sounds like you’re on the right track.

  21. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Just what I needed to hear. You’re absolutely ringing the bell of truth in my ears. I need not focus on the fact that I did not create this wheel of a niche biz I entered, but how to speak to my perfect audience (my perfect customer). Thanks so much Corbett. I spent the last 3 years building momentum, and while I understand that the garden requires consistent feeding, watering and weeding, the garden is growing. I don’t have to get bogged down in random ideas about pulling this out by the roots and “what should I plant in its place that’s not been grown before?”. Mmm. My new focus is on offering the exactly what my garden grows (Eyelash Extensions!!!) to *exactly* who needs them. A-ha!!!


  22. Corbett,

    Wow! Thank you for this post. I’ve always felt this way, but you put a new spin on the topic. I appreciate it greatly as I am gearing up to work on a website/blog/toolbox for a specific niche. (I haven’t found anything out there yet with the twists I’m interested in.)

    I plan to take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which uses much of the same logic as in your article. Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo and author of “No Plot? No Problem,” shared this insight from his book, “Some might bemoan the fact that world’s plots can be distilled into a quarter page’s worth of cliches, but I see it as just further proof of the miraculous power of well-told stories….A good plot is less a matter of innovation and invention as it is one of creative re-use; the most acclaimed books of the modern era have used the same building blocks as the worst soap operas and clumsiest cartoons. The main thing separating the mind-blowing, life-changing stories of a great novel from the treacly dreck of daytime TV is the manner in which the tale is told.”

    • Hey Rebecca, that’s a really great quote. There are a lot of parallels between successful businesses and successful books/films. “Creative re-use” is a term to remember. Thanks for sharing!

  23. Well, even the most original idea ends up with becoming derivative in the end.

    Simply because someone will obviously copy it and eventually make it better.

    Also, having the best idea in the word is just nothing. What counts is how successful you manage to make the idea.

    A few years back, I had the idea of a website that would allow people to post very short bits of text either from the website or from their mobile phone. Then, Twitter came and I know for sure that I would have never been able to bring it up to the level it is now.

    That’s why I think that, to me, the most impotant is to find an idea that works for me and that doesn’t become too big.

    Minimalism is the key.

  24. John Smith

    Worrying about being derivative is derivative. There are only 3 things you can do as an entrepreneur:

    1. Come up with your best idea.
    2. Do the best pre-planning and groundwork you can do
    3. Watch your business as best you can once it’s up and running

    Everything else is up to the market. If you succeed, hurray. If you fail, get up and do it again.

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