In many ways, there has never been a better time to build something big.
Aspiring entrepreneurs today have at their disposal more success stories, blueprints, and cautionary tales to inform their decision-making than ever before. If you are thinking about starting a business in 2019, there exists a variety of models to emulate. There’s no reason––as there used to be––for entrepreneurs to ever try and take a “shot in the dark.”
In fact, when you’re getting started, it’s naive not to look at other brands and companies for guidance. The folks who built and sustained them invested a lot of time and research figuring out what works and what doesn’t. And they’ve done this, to some extent, for you.
To enter your startup journey convinced that you have to invent the next Facebook and develop an entirely new way of producing it is a high-risk misconception.
We as founders don’t always need to change people’s consumption behavior, in other words––it’s often just as attractive to give people better, more convenient ways to consume.
Innovation today is more about business model innovation than it is about creating something fundamentally disruptive. The most innovative founders of our generation have proven successful not because they’ve invented totally new and disruptive products, but because they’ve taken complementary business elements across industries and forged them together in a way which is interesting and effective.
It’s a bit like how chefs innovate in the kitchen: they don’t necessarily create new ingredients; rather, they often choose a unique set of ingredients or they just mix classic ones together in unique ways.
Of course, not all brands seemingly thriving today are created equal. In my experience building Nexford University, there have been three in particular that I’ve looked to for wisdom and guidance.
(As you’ll notice, none are in the education space. That’s because we don’t need to limit our learnings to one vertical of the economy. Founders should search for inspiration far and wide, and should never so purposefully confine their thinking.)
Apple is famous for doing a few things really well.
The first is its uniquely sharp, simple design. All of their products are so categorically sleek and clean that the adjectives “sleek” and “clean” are now nearly synonymous with the Apple brand.
Of course, that’s also partly because they’ve worked hard to so seamlessly integrate all their products, and because they’ve invested heavily in providing frictionless customer service. They’ve designed the entire experience of interacting with their products in a very customer-centric fashion. They even go so far as to allow you to return purchased products if your circumstances change––something I took advantage of recently when I had to return a laptop I bought for a new hire who ended up working at a different location.
That’s a major learning I’ve tried implementing into our work at Nexford. (We’ve even invoked a similar kind of refund policy: if you’re unhappy during the semester, you can request a refund.) The primary and most critical goal is pleasing your customers and giving them not only a valuable product, but a great experience.
Netflix offers wisdom, like Apple, by way of its prioritization of simplicity. Everything from its acquisition funnel to its pricing model is clear-cut and easy to understand.
This was important for us at Nexford because when you think of higher education, the exact opposite is most often true: the price tag is determined by way of a complex amalgam of credit hours, tuition fees, books, lodging expenses, and so on. It nearly requires a finance degree just to understand what you’re paying for when you’re pursuing a diploma.
At Nexford, we offer students a flat monthly tuition fee, and that’s it.
That’s because I wanted paying for Nexford to, in a way, feel like paying for Netflix. And in that sense, we’re innovating on the product just as much as we are the means with which we make it accessible.
This, in my mind, strikes me as an example of innovating around consumption habits––providing a more convenient, affordable, and effective means of obtaining a university education.
Finally, Tesla represents the kind of disruption the world needs more of. Tesla is obviously innovative, but their innovation is in service of a cogent long-term objective––one that betters the planet as opposed to stuffing the pockets of just one person.
This is evidenced by their practice of open-sourcing, of making the Tesla blueprint available to the public. At Nexford, that’s something we’ve discussed doing––revealing for the world how, exactly, we’re designing the university of the next generation, and why.
That sort of disruption is good for the world. And while I wouldn’t encourage every entrepreneur to emulate everything Elon Musk does––one reason being, we’re not all as brilliant and tireless as Mr. Musk––if your goal is to disrupt and build something new, unveiling for the world what exactly you’re doing so it can be replicated at scale is a great way to do it.
Much can be learned by comparing brands to each other, too.
Equally beneficial for aspiring entrepreneurs is to study failing brands and ask yourself: why did they fail when a Netflix, for example, has won?
More specific to the education space, I ask myself all the time what, exactly, separates a London Business School––whose MBA program is forward-thinking and designed specifically to be relevant and to provide students with real-world skills and intelligence––from a less effective institution. I study Southern New Hampshire University, which paved the path for marketing an online education, or Arizona State University, and compare them to schools that don’t seem to provide their students as much value.
Understanding which strategies to avoid is equally beneficial as studying brands you’d like to emulate.
Study each company’s culture.
Many of the positive traits I’ve cited here are products of purposeful decision-making, yes, but they’re also often a product of the culture that’s in place at each company. That’s why founders should work specifically to study the cultures cultivated by the brands they admire. Rather than some secret sauce or innate brilliance, it’s the core values prioritized and systems created at the more foundational level of these companies which make them stand out.
It’s in doing this that I’ve learned this critical lesson: entrepreneurs need not reinvent the wheel.
Rather, you just need to be purposeful and, above all, perceptive. You have to keep your eyes open and be willing to search for inspiration beyond the boundaries of your supposed niche.