Not everything needs to be an app

I was approached once by an entrepreneur, let’s call him Ed. Ed wanted me to build an app that detects car engine failures. He was a trust fund boy who was annoyed by the fact that some of his many cars failed without warning. Ed read too much news about deep learning and how wonderful it was to solve everything, and which too much cash and time available, he wanted to become a tech startup founder.

It was not clear whether Ed’s app was intended as a B2B or B2C app. Ed had no experience marketing apps nor selling IT to car mechanics, so though luck to sell this. I did find one competitor with a very similar app, a startup that folded quickly and the founder did not even list it on his LinkedIn profile.

Assuming Ed’s brilliance would figure out this market, there are technical issues on the data side. Way too many car model/year/failure type triplets, which would make it very hard to collect usable data.

Well, at least all the trouble would be worth it, right? Solving the very pressing problem of running wrong diagnostics on cars?

So, you have a business idea?

An occupational hazard of computer savvy people (me included) is that we get approached by characters such as Ed the Entrepreneur, who has a “great business idea that is very easy to build”. Sometimes with good intentions, sometimes less so. Regardless of the intention, the outcome is the same: asking the techie person to indirectly become investor on their project. My sanity-checks to see if Ed’s idea can work:

  • Market segment: I wouldn’t touch B2C with a stick. It would require more polished UI design, support, and a lot of marketing to make it fly. B2B is a better choice if Ed has done consulting gigs on their own in that industry.
  • Experience with the purchase side: either Ed has sold project work to the buyer or Ed has been a buyer of similar products. Got bitten on this one after building a software to simulate electricity auctions, to be sold to electricity companies bidding in government contracts. Neither of us had a clue on how this market works, and still don’t.
  • Are there competitors? If there are no competitors, there’s no chance. Of course, there’s the one in a million Steve Jobs, but trust me Ed, odds are against you. No one is buying trained neural networks in Lisp, everyone and their dog need WordPress websites.

These three points cover the “classical” business wisdom: you can sell a product if that product solves a painful problem for someone who has the money to pay for it.