Stop Asking How Someone’s Product is Different

When someone delivers their elevator pitch, or launches a product, I’ve noticed this happen over and over again. “How’s this different from [insert already existing product]?”

Once I noticed it, it started following me everywhere. On Hacker News. Product Hunt. Reddit.

Now, people may ask this question for various reasons.

(1) They genuinely want to know whether, and how, the product is different from someone else’s. This is how humans understand new information — we process it in terms of concepts we already understand. This is why there are so many “Uber for X” and “AirBnb for Y” style descriptions — it’s easy and quick to convey information in these terms. If your question stems from curiosity about what the product exactly is, such questions should be welcome.

(2) Someone calling out a rip off of someone else’s copy, design, UI, or similar. This is obviously okay.

(3) Where there’s an underlying tone of snark, as if they added a “lol” at the end — criticism couched as a question. Snark is an actual problem on the internet. This is how many of these questions come off to me — as if the person is telling the maker that since someone else is already doing it, their product is essentially pointless.

I believe this thinking is counterproductive and even dangerous, in many ways.

a. It’s 2015, and nothing is new under the sun.

There are few, if any, groundbreakingly novel ideas left. What’s completely revolutionary is probably in capital intensive areas like space technology, or biotech — areas that have higher barriers to entry than regular B2C or B2B apps. As far as internet entrepreneurship goes, this very factor — relatively low barriers to entry — means that almost every workable idea has already been implemented in some form. Makers of today are not in a race to the next novel idea, but in a race to the next novel economically viable implementation.

b. It contributes to the mindset that it’s not possible to improve on things

I can write a laundry list of products we all love and use everyday that would have never seen the light of the day if their makers had not tried to improve on something that already existed. Suffice it to say we wouldn’t be Googling today, but Alta Vista-ng or Lycosing.

c. It contributes to the mindset that one mustn’t TRY to improve on things

What’s exciting about startups is the volatility — nobody, not even Google, can rest on their laurels, or some small, hitherto insignificant startup may come along and take your place. So why are we setting a few products or companies on a pedestal, and carving out a monopoly for them that exists nowhere except in our own mind? Google doesn’t own search.

My very favourite comment on Product Hunt.

d. There is room for more than one product

Some people prefer Todoist, some work best with Remember the Milk. Any good market will, by definition, attract more than one company, and what’s more, will be able to support such competition. If it can’t, it must be so niche that it can be, at best, a small business, not a startup.

For commentators:

The problem with asking “How is this different from X” is that it’s a question that doesn’t require too much thought or research, a low effort comment. Let’s not comment for the sake of commenting, to hit our commenting goals or for visibility.

And for makers:

It’s totally okay to say “Yes, my product isn’t different.” Sometimes, you see people trying rather desperately to differentiate, as if they feel they’re expected to prove their product’s concept is novel. If you ask a doctor, a lawyer, or a carpenter how their services differ from those of another doctor, lawyer or carpenter, what would you expect them to say? And should startups be held to a different standard?

Forget about novelty. Startups are hard enough without us imposing impossible standards on ourselves.