3 Reasons Your App Idea Shouldn't Be Unique

Written by Reinder de Vries on April 20 2016 in App Marketing

3 Reasons Your App Idea Shouldn't Be Unique

A while back I got a phone call from someone with an app idea. He had looked me up online, saw that I built iPhone apps for a living, and called me up to pitch his app idea.

The conversation went something like this: “Yes, hello, this is Zaphod [1]. I’ve got an idea for an app and I need your help.”

OK, let’s hear it then, I said. What was he working on? Zaphod replies: “I’ve been thinking: It’s very annoying when you go over your country’s border and still get charged for mobile internet, because you forgot to switch off mobile data on your phone. My idea is an app that switches off your internet when you cross the country border.”

He continues: “I think it’s a great idea because it doesn’t exist yet. Can you build such an app for me?”

I explain to him that his app idea already exists, it’s built into the Settings app of the iPhone, and that it’s probably not a great idea to build an app for it. Even if it truly doesn’t exist yet, I continue, it’s not worth it to pursue unless we would prove this is a real issue for smartphone users.

On multiple occasions, people come to me with an idea for the next big thing. Every single one of them claimed their idea was great, because it didn’t exist yet.

In this blog I would like to debunk the myth that great ideas must be unique – they don’t have to be.

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Great Ideas Aren’t Unique,
They Solve A Problem

Let’s talk about invention. Inventors like you and me, and inventors like Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla and Steve Jobs have one thing in common: we hunt for problems, and we live to solve them.

Solving problems, as seemingly lackluster it may sound, is the pinnacle of an inventors work. Add a little salesmanship into the mix and you’re an entrepreneur, able of both inventing and making sure your inventions spawn profitable businesses.

I think inventors are awesome!

Unfortunately, from the outside it kinda looks like inventors make great ideas appear magically from a black hat. As an outsider you don’t see what’s going on inside the black hat.

You only see an invention, a product, that didn’t exist before. You see people want to buy it, therefore, you think that people will want to buy stuff that didn’t exist before. Uniqueness!

So what are inventions then? They’re solved problems. Often, great inventions are based on a secret.

You think of inventions as things that haven’t been invented yet, when in fact, an invention is just a clever (not even new) way of solving a problem.

Unique ideas are elusive, got it. But if your idea is truly unique, why shouldn’t you pursue it? Because…

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Unique Ideas Don’t Have Competition
(Or So They Want You To Believe)

Unique ideas don’t have competition. Awesome, right? You should build your unique app idea as soon as possible, before any competitors enter the market.

First-mover advantage isn’t always a great thing.

Electricity existed long before Edison found a way to bring it to your home. First-mover advantage proved a real challenge for him: the average person didn’t know electricity, didn’t know how to handle it, and frankly, got around fine with oil lamps.

Spork: novel utensil or over-engineered feat?

Imagine your app is as unique as a “spork” (a spoon + fork) and you need to teach people how to use it. Instead of simply marketing your app to an audience, you now have to educate them too, because your idea is so unique.

The great thing about competition is that the marketing message of your competitor educates your audience too. It’s especially helpful when your audience needs more information before they can buy your solution. As a first-mover, the absence of competition can be a disadvantage.

Unique ideas have another downside. Inventors of unique ideas rarely research the ways a prospect customer is currently solving the problem the inventor is making a solution for. Let me explain.

Let’s say you’re making a prototyping tool, a fancy user interface you can use to create mockups of an iPhone app. Back in 2011 I had the idea to combine such a tool with the ability to work on the same design together with multiple people.

I tried to market it for creative professionals and I thought it was a truly novel invention, something that didn’t exist yet. The problem I wanted to solve was not being able to work on a prototype design or mockup together with colleagues or co-founders.

Unfortunately, I failed to successfully launch the app, because I didn’t do enough research into finding out how my target audience was currently solving the problem I intended to solve. As a prototyping tool your competition isn’t the next best prototyping tool, it’s pen and paper!

Later on, prospect customers I chatted with told me they would share their designs via Dropbox, or via Facebook Groups, or even via email. Their makeshift solutions weren’t great, but they worked.

As the inventor of a tool that didn’t exist yet I failed to realize there were already solutions out there, solving the problem I wanted to solve. My app was unique, but not as a solution, and the real competitors turned out to be pen and paper, Dropbox, and Facebook Groups. Uniqueness had clouded my judgement.

Unique Ideas Are Like That Cat You Can’t Catch

Are all apps already invented? The App Store has millions of apps, and even though many of them are copies of Flappy Bird, I’m starting to think we’ve run out of unique ideas.

Having said that, I haven’t found an app yet that tells me in the morning what emails I should reply to. Also, I’m still looking for an app that can plan my route with public transport based on my calendar entries. Yeah, and what about that brain-computer interface app from “Her” [2]?

In the book Zero to One Peter Thiel [3] explains how great ideas are based on secrets. Secrets are all around us, hiding in plain sight. To give an example:

  • Elon Musk figured out how to build an affordable electric car. Cars, electric cars, battery technology – it all existed already.
  • Bill Gates figured out how to put easy-to-use computing power into the hands of ordinary consumers (without building a single PC!). Computers, software, operating systems, it all existed already.
  • Commercial spaceflight is still a secret. We already have rockets, launch pads, and so on. Doing it affordably? One big secret.

Unique ideas are hard to find, because they’re elusive. I’m doubting whether uniqueness still exist and I’m sure that when I find it, I don’t want it anymore. It’s much easier to go look for secrets, increasingly harder challenges, and solve those.

So, What Now!?

True great ideas are solutions to problems, as ubiquitous as bottled water and as tough to crack as commercial spaceflight. Don’t focus on finding unique ideas, because:

  • The fact that it doesn’t exist yet doesn’t make it a great idea
  • Unique ideas have no competition and that’s a disadvantage
  • Unique ideas often have competition from an unexpected angle
  • Unique ideas are hard to find! Look for secrets instead

So, what’s next then? Focus on an idea that solves a problem, then find customers willing to pay for the solution to their problem!

[1]. Zaphod is not his real name, of course, but I’m sure he brought his towel.
[2]. “Her” (2013)
[3]. Zero to One, by Peter Thiel on Amazon.com

Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is a professional iOS developer. He teaches app developers how to build their own apps at LearnAppMaking.com. Since 2009 he has developed a few dozen apps for iOS, worked for global brands and lead development at several startups. When he’s not coding, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.