There’s a great blog post by Chris Dixon that got my head spinning in this direction. Chris’ post is not directly about design; it’s more about the TV industry and Apple but he brought up a good point that I think bears repeating. When Apple was launching the iPhone, a lot of smart people thought that the company wouldn’t survive in the mobile industry because there was a widespread belief that mobile phones weren’t “broken”, in the sense that people had Crackberries and really great feature phones and, unlike the MP3 player business, there wasn’t an opportunity to beat the competition with a vastly superior product. That worked out differently than a lot of people thought it would, primarily because Apple designed a product that was far better than anything else on the market and people wanted to have one.
Chris’ post got me thinking about an earlier exchange of blog posts about the YC startup, Airbnb. If you missed this back-and-forth, check out Fred Wilson, Paul Graham and Andrew Parker’s posts on when and how USV missed the investment (it’s really insightful). When you think about it, this wasn’t a new idea. There were existing players already established in the space, and other substitutes that work just fine, namely VRBO, Homeaway and even Craigslist addressed some of this market. I would argue that AirBnb is winning simply by executing a better design than all of these competitor sites. They’re not a new concept, they just did it better and they understood what people want when they’re looking for a place to sleep. The site is designed incredibly well, and the feature set does exactly what you need it to; nothing more and nothing less.
I’ve taken to this today as a great example of a startup that didn’t wedge themselves into a new space in the market, they just found a space that had gotten a little sleepy and ate everyone else’s lunch.