Build a Better Mousetrap

Build a Better MousetrapWhen I first started working on my own business ideas, I didn’t understand how important it was to do something unique.

I borrowed other ideas without contributing anything new or noteworthy and then scratched my head when my implementation never took off. “Why is no one paying attention to my idea?

The next time around, I decided to take the complete opposite approach. I then thought you had to invent something completely new to succeed.

Maybe you’ve bounced from one extreme to the other, too.

This is a trap many new entrepreneurs fall into. They believe that if they just come up with the elusive perfect idea, they’ll become rich and famous.

There are a few big problems with the perfect idea fallacy.

First, ideas are worthless on their own. Ideas are really just a multiplier of execution. The better your idea, the more value you can create, but only if you match your idea with great execution.

Second, new ideas are rarely new. Most of the time what you think is a new idea isn’t really new at all. Your idea may have actually led some other entrepreneur you’ve never heard of down a path to failure. If only you had the case study you might learn and adapt, but alas quiet failures aren’t usually documented for us to learn from.

And finally, if your idea really is new, that means it’s also unproven (read: risky). This can be a really good thing (like the Roomba), or a big expensive disappointment (like the Segway).

Succeeding as an entrepreneur is about eliminating risks. You can still hit a home run without taking on the risk of an unproven idea. Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, Apple and Dell have each made it to the top of the technology business heap by innovating, not inventing. I’ll bet you can’t name the companies or people who actually invented the social network, computer operating system, personal computers or the database.

The sweet spot for business ideas lies somewhere between inventing and copying.

It’s all about innovation.

I finally figured this out by my third attempt at entrepreneurship. A business should be interesting and fresh, but it doesn’t have to be completely novel.

Innovating on an already good idea is how most successful businesses are born. The “better mousetrap” concept really does work.

But don’t think this lets you off the hook. For as many entrepreneurs who fall into the perfect idea fallacy, just as many fall into the trap of not innovating at all.

What you do does have to be unique, and interesting and noteworthy. You can’t do exactly the same thing as dozens of other businesses with no unique selling proposition or other differentiation, and still expect to succeed.

Whatever space you’re already in or are thinking about starting up in, think about how you can innovate to make people take notice.

Sometimes you don’t have to look far.

For example, Nest asked why thermostats had to be programmed, instead of learning from your behavior. They took a boring old idea and made it fresh and interesting. Similarly, Sonos asked why filling your home with audio in every room had to be so complicated. Both of these killer products are merely better mousetraps.

In the blogging world, Steve Kamb simply wondered why there weren’t any fitness publications which catered to people like him, and Nerd Fitness was born.

Pat Flynn noticed that all the blogs about making money online lacked honesty and transparency, so he started Smart Passive Income and revealed all his financial details each month, down to the penny.

What annoys you about current offerings? What do you hear people asking for that doesn’t yet exist? How do you wish the products and services you use could be improved?

Your great business idea could be come from answering simple questions like those.

What do you think? Let’s discuss the “better mousetrap” concept below. Have any counter-examples? Please share in the comments!

Fun fact: the quote “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” is often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it’s a misquotation. Mousetraps actually weren’t invented until seven years after Emerson died.


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  • Jonathan

    I have to say I love your site, I just started a site and wasn’t getting much traffic. After doing some of the things in your other posts (which are all epic in their own right) I got 100 unique visitors in one day! Not much relative to most, but definitely a much needed improvement. Many thanks for helping newbies like myself! =)

    • Corbett Barr

      Hey! Congrats Jonathan, I’m glad our stuff still works ;) Keep at it. 1,000 visitors a day is the next big milestone. Rinse and repeat.

  • Chad Miller

    YES! I’ve been so frustrated lately about the lack of depth with my blog content. There’s nothing new. It’s the same old, safe, boring content.
    As ridiculous as it may sound, this article is the permission I’ve been waiting for to add innovation to the tired belief system that has become the norm. I want to take what everyone already knows and re-purpose it, challenge the status-quo, and simply be awesome.
    Inspiring post, Corbett.

    • Corbett Barr

      Perfect, challenge away Chad. Take the permission and run with it.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Great post Corbett. Great ideas often come from finding a problem and then thinking about creative ways to solve that problem. More than often, the solution is simple, but just needs to be communicated in a way that people will understand. People may also have different solutions to the same problem – and that’s the beauty of innovation in my view. Cheers.

    • Corbett Barr

      Exactly. There is usually more than one useful way to solve a problem.

  • Martijn

    Agree with all of your points :)

    It’s funny to see how many people want to keep their ideas secret. Funniest part is that the ideas stay secret, because they almost never get executed.

    • Corbett Barr

      Definitely. I’ve known way too many people like that.

  • Tea Silvestre, aka the Word Chef

    Woot! Here’s to better mousetraps everywhere! It’s exactly what we need online right now — especially with the extreme proliferation of content (if I hear “Content is King” one more time, I’ll…). As someone who makes her living teaching small biz start-ups how to market themselves (online and off), I’ve been struck by two things: the over-reliance on templates, blueprints, roadmaps and recipes being hawked by info product marketers; and the complete lack of follow-through on the part of those we’re trying to teach. I’m sure there are MANY reasons that play into that 2nd issue — and I’m hoping I can change that up a bit with “Prosperity’s Kitchen.” In one blow, we make quality marketing education accessible to all, keep folks accountable because they’re implementing in public, and incentivize them to make progress through gamification. If any of your readers are interested in being a “contestant” we’re accepting applications through 9/30/2012: Thanks for all you do, Corbett! Can’t wait to see how Fizzle works, too.

    • Corbett Barr

      It all comes down to lack of imagination and self-belief and follow-through. People are so used to following rules all their lives, it’s hard to remember how to be creative and to make your own rules. Entrepreneurship is about building new things, but people expect a paint-by-numbers approach.

  • Ryan Hanley

    It almost seems like a maturation process for a lot of people. The initial thinking is always, “It has to be completely different” instead of just “Better is a slightly different way.”

    Thanks for a great article Corbett.

    Ryan H.

  • Alex @ How To Start A Blog

    Great read Corbett, I think theres two sides to this argument, but I agree with you, I don’t think your idea has to be totally original but if you are following in someone else’s footsteps the question to ask is how can you do it better which like you said is how many good ideas are born! It is really important to be able to be one step above the best in your field if you can and if you can do things better then I think it’s a sure recipe to success!

    • Corbett Barr

      Not just better, but different as well. Both are important.

  • Weyi Emile

    You got it all right! Never saw it this way.

  • Tania Tyler

    Nice post. It also reminds us that we each have something unique to bring to the table. I just started a new line of hemp & gemstone bracelets… nothing new but they are handmade using real stones. I’m stressing the healing properties of each stone that I use as my uniqueness…
    Did my first show on Sunday and people are loving them and the concept.

    • Corbett Barr

      Congrats! Feedback is critical. I’m glad you’re getting some early on.

  • jared akers

    Nice write up. I believe this concept (or perspective) to be right on. And I love the execution example from Sivers, been using it for years to make the point about execution.

    Being unique in a crowded online space can be tough. But we all have something that makes us unique and exploiting that to add value, transparency, ease of use, etc. is key but still difficult.

    I still think the concept of scratching your own itch applies, but how can you make the solution accessible and easy to use and understand? A lot I think just comes from persistence. At least I’m hoping, because my cause is something I cannot not do.

    Speaking of scratching one’s own itch: I’d like someone to create a decent video editor for Android Jelly Bean. None I’ve tried work as good as ReelDirector for iOS. I have a Nexus 7 and so (after trying several apps from the Play store) installed the old Google Movie editor (.APK ) in order to add a simple video bumper to video’s shot on my Nexus 7.

  • Good Guy Robert

    It certainly is important to plug away until you find your innovation sweet spot. Hitting your specific bulls eye between copying and inventing can take a long time to do.

    And that target can be further obfuscated by not knowing whether or not you’re marketing your idea correctly. Maybe you HAVE hit the perfect balance and just aren’t letting enough people know about it!

    The whole process would be a lot easier if one could find constant, reliable feedback from a large audience; which is tough to build before you’re confident in your positioning.

    • Corbett Barr

      The inverse of that path is to build an audience first, then figure out what you can create to help them best.

  • Sheyi |

    Short, insightful and taughtful.

    Nice write up Corbett.

    So the thing is this, look at what you need, if there is no market that really solves that, bring it on and help others.


  • Amber Goodenough

    Oh boy, mousetraps are literally everywhere in my house right now. Ick. Just moved from the States to Amsterdam, and they are in my kitchen. Tried the non-violent approach and it did not work. Ideas anyone?

    My business was born out of necessity as well. I was tired of trying to decipher complicated business plan templates so I created my own. I’m currently learning to change the way I talk about my new product. It’s not a new concept (business planning ecourse) but my delivery and language are unique.

    Looking forward to catching more mice, both literally and figuratively. Great post!

    • Corbett Barr

      I didn’t expect a literal need for a better mousetrap to come out of this post :) Sorry to hear about the rodent problem. Better luck with the ecourse.

    • Amber Goodenough

      Thanks Corbett! The mice have been given eviction notices. Hopefully they will go in peace.

  • J. Delancy

    Another solid post. I’ve tried to be innovative by creating a blog that covers the concerns of men between the ages of 45 and 65. Growth is an ongoing process since I have to learn as I go but some people seem to like it so I keep writing.

  • Michelle Sears

    This is my favorite part of the article –

    “The sweet spot for business ideas lies somewhere between inventing and copying. It’s all about innovation.”

    That alone gives me great insight into the products that I need to be offering my visitors. Of course I enjoyed the entire article but that right there was my tipping point.


    • Corbett Barr

      Excellent. Let us know how it goes Michelle.

  • Bob Mutch

    “Innovation” can be such an intimidating word. While most (like me) can’t picture themselves as innovators, perhaps being a critic is the best starting point to achieving the same goal.

    Finding fault with others’ work comes so naturally to most people — including me! But instead of wasting time mocking what others are doing, the thought process can be used to identify opportunities for innovation.

    Turning criticism into productive brainstorming is one way to come up with ways to improve a product or service offering. Scanning the website design landscape in my local market helped me to identify “innovations” that I can offer prospective clients that (I hope!) help me stand out from the crowd.

    – Replacing the standard, “Request a Quote” call-to-action with posted pricing eliminates the “sticker shock” factor and allows me to ask to be paid what I think my time is worth.

    – Offering the appeal and convenience of installment payments from the get-go helps small-business owners justify “upgrading” from the crappy, template-based website services that cost less but achieve nothing.

    These and other ideas emerged from looking at local market competition with a critical eye and turning scoffing into actionable strategies that I hope will help my fledgling attempt at entrepreneurship evolve into a sustainable business.

    Assuming that I’m not the first to turn criticism into productive (and self-serving) ideas, does that make me some sort of innovator? Wouldn’t that be cool? :-)

  • Fred Perrotta

    Totally agree, Corbett. When my backpack company designed our first bag, we were mostly combining existing features from other bags. I think the opportunity to innovate for specific audiences is huge, especially when you focus on making every little detail geared just for them. That focus will win new customers and the attention to detail will make them love you.

  • Malloy

    I totally agree with this post. When Waveborn ( was founded last year, we decided to stop trying to come up with the greatest idea ever. Instead, we focused on taking a good idea (selling sunglasses and donating eyeglasses…just like TOMS shoes, this was before they started selling glasses too :-) and make our business the greatest. We’re not just selling sunglasses anymore, we’re selling a lifestyle of happiness based on helping others, and we believe that all businesses should focus more on the benefits they provide to their community, and not just their bottom line. Keep up the great work – your blog has been very helpful to us as the company continues to grow!

  • Thomas @ Mobile App Tycoon

    Great post! I talk about this when it comes to app ideas – you don’t have to think of something 100% unique in order to see success. You just have to improve on an existing app idea. Competition is a good thing – it gives you a prediction of how well your app may do.


  • Ricardo Caicedo

    What an awesome post, Corbett.

    I’m sure you could write an entire book around this concept, if it hasn’t been done by now.

    One of my first entrepreneurial projects (the one where I invested most of my time at) failed because I tried to “invent” instead of innovating. A lot of risk was involved. Basically what happened was that the demand for my product was too small. I stubbornly (and stupidly) stuck with the company for 4 years until it went broke.

    Meanwhile, a friend of mine “built a better mousetrap” in an apparently crowded market and quickly succeeded!

    • Corbett Barr

      Wow, sorry to hear that Ricardo. I’ve been there myself. Thanks for sharing the example, this is a powerful one. I hope you’re doing well with new ventures.


  • Joe Piroli

    Last year I came up with a product its a DVD on how to play electric guitar and I sell it on Amazon. I had some quailty videos created gave the DVD a great title and great description and put it up on Amazon.

    I found that although I have made sales it has not taken off as I expected. Thinking about it now It could well be that its just not innovative enough. Who knows what the real problem is, maybe even if you get it right you can still hit a brick wall.

    It’s tough out there you’ve just got to keep on going.

  • Charley

    It’s always been precisely the way you stated it. Cars weren’t as useful or advanced as they are now when they were first invented. One company took the idea, revamped it with new ideas, which led to innovation, and then a better car. Then another company… That’s how the cycle continued and the product was the modern car we have today. I utterly agree with this.

    Now let me start thinking of some voids in products and niches I’m interested in :-)

  • Niveen Salem

    Corbett, this is a great subject for many entrepreneurs starting their own businesses in different industries. Adapting an innovative approach in what you do is crucial for success. I have to admit that it takes some creativity and requires some good thinking and maybe brainstorming with close business contracts or friends.

    I’m in the middle of all that now and every day trying to think of an innovative way. Ideas in my mind but as you said, it won’t come to reality unless it’s executed! Sometimes technology and “how-to’s” hinders abilities and the speed of success :)

    Thank you for a great post!

    Niveen Salem

  • Dylan Varian

    Awesome post as usual Corbett. Just a quick question about ThinkTraffic – the plugin with the call to action below each post to subscribe to your newsletter, what is that called?

    • Corbett Barr

      Hey Dylan, that’s custom code, not a plugin. Our superstar designer Chase Reeves coded many of the features up using custom HTML/CSS/PHP.

  • Hilary Martin, MBA, CFP®

    Yep, it’s good to be reminded that the first to market is rarely the market leader.

    Can’t say I wasn’t hoping for a Unique Selling Proposition template….


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  • Omar Zenhom

    A fun fact, INDEED! Love your writing style Corbett.

Up Next:

Everything is Derivative

Over the past few years, I've talked and worked with lot of smart, talented and motivated entrepreneurs-in-the-making who all get hung up on some variation of the same issue. The problem is usually described like this: "I can't decide what my business should be about. Every topic is already covered by someone else. How can I create something real and unique and not derivative?"

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