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Think Laterally to Help Your Startup Survive and Thrive

A good business–so they say–should be like a tree. First, it builds an extensive root system. A sturdy trunk follows, and finally, the tree diversifies with branches. The trouble is that when you cut the tree down, it can’t grow. And in a world where nine out of 10 startups fail, even if you make it through those first few years and become a household name, you’re still not safe from the formidable ax.

Still, let’s say your original idea takes off. It’s a new product, and everybody wants it. But soon, you’re confronted with a problem: do you diversify, or do you stick with your one good idea until the end?

Diversify or Die

Sure, your company can begin with one good idea. In fact, I’d argue that it should. But at some point, your one good idea really isn’t a good idea at all anymore. Maybe in this dynamic age, we need a more dynamic business model than a tree.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking about rhizome businesses. A rhizome, from the Ancient Greek word for “mass of roots,” is a plant structure that grows horizontally in the soil before shooting up in a number of different places. So even if one offshoot fails, there are plenty to take its place. You might have a great idea that forms the root of your business, but you shouldn’t let that idea limit you.

Here are three tips to ensure the weight of your big idea isn’t dragging you down:

1. Create “sister” products. While you’re looking to expand your offerings, you need to be wary of stretching yourself too thin. Think about “sister” products that fall under the same umbrella as your initial idea.

Nike is an expert at this. Nike’s first shoes were made using a waffle iron to allow runners to grip the track. But the company didn’t stop there. It continues to innovate its shoes and release shorts, shirts, water bottles and even watches. Yet all of these products still fall under the sports apparel umbrella.

2. Take reasonable risks. You need to be willing to test out new products or services while understanding that you may end up back at the drawing board.

Odeo was a small startup developing a podcast platform, but in the fall of 2005, Apple launched the iOS Podcasts app, rendering Odeo irrelevant. CEO Evan Williams had to think quickly. He divided his employees into teams and asked them to come up with new ideas for the company. In February 2006, teammates Noah Glass, Jack Dorsey and Florian Weber presented their idea: Twitter.

It wasn’t a new idea, per se, but this diversification secured the company’s future. As the first shoot of Odeo broke through the ground, it was brutally trampled. Twitter offered a second life.

3. Follow your competitors. You can and should analyze your competitors. How are they differentiating their businesses from yours? What tech are they using that you aren’t? Once you determine the answers, act on your findings accordingly.

For instance, Henry Ford started out with the simplest possible offering: the Model T. He was churning them out quickly, but by the 1920s, the market had shifted. The people at Chevrolet started introducing newer models, and as a result, Ford’s market share declined and profits eroded. How did he respond? He diversified and introduced the Model A.

In this fast-paced market, we see new products come out every day; and you simply won’t be able to keep up if you’re stuck on the same idea you’ve been touting since 2004. Remember: a strong central idea isn’t a bad thing, but you can’t let it limit you.


This article originally appeared onĀ inc.com.


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