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“High Concept” startups March 26, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Internet, start-up, startups, web 2.0.

I missed two posts earlier this month with the same general theme, that the best way to come up with a new web company is to take an old idea that works, and recycle it.

Marc Hedlund (founder of Wesabe) says to create a new company, take a UNIX command and webify it:

…find an old UNIX command that hasn’t yet been implemented on the web, and fix that. talk and finger became ICQ, LISTSERV became Yahoo! Groups, ls became (the original) Yahoo!, find and grep became Google, rn became Bloglines, pine became Gmail, mount is becoming S3, and bash is becoming Yahoo! Pipes. I didn’t get until tonight that Twitter is wall for the web.

The comments to his post are worth reading if you are into UNIX humor – it mostly went over my head. (I also skip the Ubuntu posts of Digg!)

Jason Kottke says (excerpting – go to his post for the full text):

…take something that everyone does with their friends and make it public and permanent. (Permanent as in permalinked.) Examples:

* Blogger, 1999. Blog posts = public email messages.
* Twitter, 2006. Twitter = public IM.
* Flickr, 2004. Flickr = public photo sharing.
* YouTube, 2005. YouTube = public home videos.

Both Jason and Marc are essentially advocating “High Concept” Startups.
In addition to curent online and software/OS behaviour, another good place to mine for new “high concept” ideas is the offline world.

“High concept” movies are movies that can be summarized in one sentence, often referencing another well known movie or book e.g. “Superfriends in 19th Century London“, “Schindler’s list in Rwanda“, “Jaws in space“, or “Heart of Darkness during the Vietnam War“.
[rockyou id=61482296&w=400&h=300]

Hence by analogy the “High Concept” startup (e.g. “List serv on the web“, “Public IM“, “Flickr for Video“, “Myspace for Baby Boomers“, “Bumper stickers for the web” etc.).

There is a lot to like about this approach to building a new company. The first is that you know that you’re targeting a large user base because you can observe an existing large market. The second is that adoption can be very rapid because you’re taking advantage of behavioural metaphors that people are already used to – they “know what to do”. (The importance of this concept can’t be overemphasized. I’ll blog more about this later). The third is that monetization models can often be predicted by analogy – a low CPM massive scale advertising business in client form will likely be a low CPM massive scale advertising business on the web. Past can be looked to as prologue.

The challenge of the “high concept startup” is that it is often not all that novel. There may well be multiple other companies targeting the same idea. There is nothing wrong with competition, but this creates a greater level of murkiness in the water so that often the “best” product is not the winner. Sites with early adoption – whether due to Distribution, Virality or just plain luck, can end up pulling away from the others. In all startups, execution is at least as important as the idea itself, but this is even more true for the “High Concept” startup.


1. Marc Hedlund - March 26, 2007

You’ll notice that Wesabe is not a reimplemented UNIX command. Take from that whatever you will. 🙂

2. Nivi - March 26, 2007

Jeremy, You might like this article on high-concept startups that I wrote a couple years ago: http://www.nivi.com/blog/article/the-trillion-dollar-web-20-matrix

The pompous summary of the article states This article will describe where to find at least a trillion dollars of latent value on the Internet. The summary is: use user-generated content to determine the relevancy of search results, determine the media you consume, and determine the messages you receive. And use the right scope (e.g. personal, social, or world) for the job.

3. jeremyliew - March 26, 2007

Marc – touche!

Nivi – it would be interesting to see how that matrix of yours fills in now that we are 18 months later.

4. bryan - March 26, 2007

What’s the unix command for myspace? or WordPress?

5. UNIX commands = startups « Sharing the truth one thread at a time - March 26, 2007

[…] Posted by innerdaemon under Sun , Apple , Venture Capital , Web 2.0  This is an interesting observation. …find an old UNIX command that hasn’t yet been implemented on the web, and fix that. talk and […]

6. jeremyliew - March 26, 2007

Bryan, unfortunately the mapping isn’t 1;1 !

7. kosso - March 27, 2007

@bryan: echo blah >> file ? 😉

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[…] an interesting article about equating the most successful startups to old UNIX commands – it rings very true! You will […]

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11. Michael R. Bernstein - June 4, 2008

MySpace (and in fact, all the social networks) have evolved away from the ‘unix command’, and are now the ‘unix home folder’ (ie, in more recenbt terms, a portal). They are also trying to evolve towards being the equivalent of an entire operating system distribution, and I’m not sure this is actually a long-term defensible position. Ning seems to ‘get’ the idea of a transition to a utility platform better.

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[…] your business plan for potential investors in an executive summary, or even more succinctly as a high concept startup pitch. This is helpful for communicating to angel investors and VCs, but it doesn’t help you […]

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