It’s important to clearly distinguish between what people desire and how they fulfill them. Our desires usually remain the same, but methods of fulfillment keep changing. For example, the desire to have good oral hygiene can be fulfilled in multiple ways: toothbrushes, mouth wash, or even crunchy foods like carrots that help clean mouth as we chew on them.
What people care about is their desires and not how they’re currently fulfilling them. If a better way to fulfill their desire comes along, they’ll switch to it in a jiffy. This is why innovative startups take over entrenched incumbents. People really have no loyalty to solutions.
Because there are diverse ways of fulfilling a desire, it also means that an established toothbrush company doesn’t have to just compete with other toothbrush companies. It also has to compete with all alternative ways of getting good oral hygiene (such as mouthwash and people chewing carrots). This is good news for entrepreneurs because this means no market is ever done. Even before toothbrushes came along, people cared for their oral hygiene and even long after toothbrushes are long gone, people will still care for their oral hygiene.
Since desires always remain, better solutions can always supplant the old ones.
Let’s look at a few more examples. Our desire for music has always remained but methods for fulfilling that desire have evolved from live orchestra, vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, MP3 players, to now streaming services such as Spotify. Similarly, our desire for finding information has also always remained but what has changed is that we’ve stopped going to libraries or looking at Yellow Pages and have started Googling. Tomorrow, even Googling can stop but our thirst for finding information will never go away.
Entrepreneurs are fond of saying that their solutions are unique in the market and hence they have no competitors. That’s not true. People do not sit still waiting for a perfect solution to arrive in the market. They’re usually using something or the other to fulfill their desires. You may not identify it as a competitor not what people are using be optimal or good, but it’s there and people use it. The first-ever search engine really did compete with the Yellow Pages because that’s what people were using to find info.
No matter how unique, all new things compete with old things.
So, as an entrepreneur, you need to have clarity on what human desire are you trying to fulfill and what existing alternatives are available to the customer to fulfill that desire. Even though CRM software and Microsoft Excel seem to be serving different markets, from the lens of desires they compete head-to-head because both fulfill the same desire of business owners to keep track of their customers.
Remember: solutions come and go, but desires always remain.
This essay is part of my book on mental models for startup founders.