Why business successes and failures are seldom duplicated

You have a new idea or a new strategy to grow your business. Or you want to offer something different from what you’ve already been offering. But how can you be sure about what you’re trying? Oftentimes decision makers base their decision of rolling out new plans on past reports of others (esp. bigger or older companies) having tried the same thing. And often times the other party’s success of failure serves as the motivation to try or discount the new plan.

“Learning from others’ mistakes”, they call it – a thought that I personally don’t subscribe to very religiously. For only a trial can ascertain if it is actually a mistake for you. I understand that the area I’m treading is severely grey and subjective, nonetheless, this is only a reminder against an inhibitive attitude of over-learning from others. A few reasons why trying to learn from someone else’s success or failure might be dangerous:

1. Different audience: So if you’re trying to get inspired by a successful selling strategy of an American business, there is a good chance that they succeeded because they struck an emotional chord that American audience held close to their heart. The technique might / might-not benefit in China. Another example could be difference in the market segment which you and your muse appeal to – using the same strategy on people with difference needs and priorities can easily spell disaster.

2. Different timing: Someone did something successfully in the 90s. Are you sure you will be able to repeat that? Has the growth of technology, generation gap or social development changed your audience? The ticking clock changes a lot of things.

3. Luck: ‘Are you feeling lucky’?

4. Implementation: Experienced entrepreneurs will know this. An idea is only as good as its implementation. This is probably the most important factor that encouraged me to write this discourse. Don’t be afraid to launch something new, if you trust your capacity to see it through, and don’t be foolish enough to imitate steps of another, knowing that your skill is limited.

5. Selling: You could consider selling a part of implementation, but this is a very important bit. Make a diamond but if you don’t sell it well, then coal is better off. So if the other business sold it’s idea just the way the audience wanted it, you need to make sure you live up to that standard.

6. Half-cooked information: We’re talking of relying on outcomes of other people’s experiments. But are you sure the information you have about the method and the outcome is complete, genuine and reliable?

If one huge airline company was unsuccessful in rolling out a loyalty program, does this mean the loyalty does not work for airlines at all? And if loyalty programs are working well for almost every airline in the world, do you think your airline team is capable enough to pull if off? Will your audience accept it gracefully? If you can think of all these and similar issues and yet are confident that it should work, take the plunge.

I have spelled out only a few factors that come to mind but I’m sure there are several others. The success or failure of any initiative, be it a complete business or a sub-problem in a business, is in mathematical terms a multivariate function which depends on a huge mix of factors. Change one small thing and the effect of changing another variable could make all the difference in the world – sort of the butterfly effect.

Please realize I’m not discouraging research, nor am I suggesting that one should stay away from case studies, news and events. I’m just supporting the basics of a truly successful business – innovation and originality, knowing your product, knowing your audience, selling it well and at the right moment. If you trust your business acumen, do pay heed to what others have done but don’t treat the outcome as sacrosanct. Treat the success/failure of the other company as one of the points in your pros-and-cons list but don’t make it the title. For only a trial can tell you if it was a mistake for you.

[Guest article contributed by Maniraj Singh. He is a graduate from IIT Delhi and MIT, USA. He is a passionate entrepreneur with his third venture being an e-commerce company by the name of madeinhealth.com which got acquired recently by healthkart. Maniraj currently co-heads the business strategy department at yebhi.com. Maniraj can be reached at maniraj@alum.mit.edu]

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