What comes to your mind when you think about companies like Webvan, Dodgeball, Pets.com, Kozmo.com, and WebTV? All were pioneers in their markets in many ways, but all were–in some respects, anyway–failures. In the business world, it’s the unlucky fate of certain companies to serve as proof, or even punchlines, about how ambitious technology companies can implode in sometimes spectacular ways.
But while it’s easy, and occasionally instructive, to critique a company once it’s gone and dissect the reasons why, it’s important to remember there’s one tricky element that all startups face and few manage to fully control: timing.
Startups like to tell themselves that execution beats everything. That idea is widely endorsed within the tech world, but it’s probably wishful thinking. What startup founder wouldn’t like to believe that her beautifully designed product and incredible user experience are the sole reasons for her company’s success? Still, a great product at the wrong time just won’t cut it.
This sort of timing isn’t about launching in either this or that quarter. Rather, it’s about the much broader condition of the industry and culture as a whole–something that can’t usually be controlled by business leaders and in many ways can’t even be defined. For entrepreneurs, it can be hard to accept that something so mysterious can make or break their companies, especially when there are so many other factors already working against a startup’s success. Yet it’s the reality all of them face. It’s par for the course.
Consider Facebook. Had the social network launched in 2015, not even as a bare-bones product, but with the robust array of features it boasts today, do you think it would have been nearly as successful? Counterfactuals are tough to argue, but it seems very unlikely all the same. When Facebook did launch, early in 2004, the timing was right, and thanks to predecessors like Friendster, the demand was there. If it weren’t Facebook, some other company would have come along to meet that demand in its own way, and we’d be talking about the fact that it now has over a billion users instead.
The point isn’t to say that the success of every successful tech company was inevitable–that’s hardly ever the case–but that fulfilling a demand in the market (or creating an entire market out of a latent demand) is all about timing. Strike too early or too late, and you risk striking out. But while entrepreneurs may not be able to control the “when,” they can control the strategic “how” of their reaction to it.
When you talk to people about the idea for your company, do they get excited about it? If there’s no demand for what you want to offer and few discussions about the need for a solution like yours, it’s probably a sign you’re facing an uphill battle.
Sometimes tech entrepreneurs have an idea so advanced that it doesn’t yet fit into the habits and expectations people already have and are comfortable with. Just about everyone likes to say they love trying new things, but when it comes down to it, many of us are creatures of habit. Adopting technology that tries to break old habits doesn’t come naturally if there’s no pressing need to do so.
You also need to make sure the supporting technology and infrastructure that your product would rely on are fully baked. If they aren’t, then you’re in trouble. That was one factor that tripped up some of the companies we mentioned earlier.
If you’re building an iOS app and you’re able to find hundreds of similar apps in the App Store, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this market might already be served. This is especially true if multiple competitors already have massive audiences or good momentum. The world just doesn’t need your Facebook or Instagram clone.
Competitors notwithstanding, the time for your idea might have passed without you being able to point to a company that got there first. To take just one obvious example, you could build the most amazing CD/DVD software that’s ever been created, but it’s likely too few people will care to make it worth your time as a business.
If market research shows that a pain-point exists that your product can solve, and discussions are already bubbling up online around that problem, then now might be the best time to pounce. If no other startups are racing to tackle the issue–or at least not as well as you think your own approach can–then so much the better. Just remember that your biggest competitors might not have appeared on the scene yet, even if they’re already hard at work on their own solution. Always anticipate how someone else might beat you to the punch.
And if your current competitors don’t have much traction or you know you can outperform them by building a better product, drop whatever you’re doing and get to work.
Ultimately, though, there are no guarantees. Most tech entrepreneurs trying to time their business strategically hardly need to be reminded of that. After all, timing remains a mystery in so many ways. Some companies plan carefully timed rollouts for spectacular products and don’t succeed, while others fly by the seat of their pants and still wind up succeeding with a subpar product.
Call it luck–call it whatever you like–but don’t forget that whatever got you off the ground in the first place can still send you crashing back onto it if you aren’t careful. If your company sticks around long enough, timing can still reverse your good fortunes. What was once a great cultural fit can become obsolete in no time. Just ask Kodak or Blockbuster.
Brandon Watts is the founder and principal of Wattsware, a PR agency that mainly works with technology companies. Brandon has worked with brand-new startups, well-known companies with hundreds of millions of users, and everything in between.