Defy the odds, create a unique niche, and succeed beyond the hype

There’s a common narrative that repeats itself in the tech industry. A burgeoning startup emerges with a groundbreaking concept, successfully attracts incredible VC funding, and skyrockets to unicorn status. The company then fails to deliver sustainable profit and falls from glory in a few short years (or even months, in some cases). Despite the relative slowdown in VC activity, that story has still played out over the last year and usually comes to the same ending: 90% of startups fail, 10% of which succumb within the first year.

While the numbers paint a grim picture, one thing we recognize as innovators is that every challenge harbors a unique solution. In many cases, it isn’t the funding that holds entrepreneurs back but rather a hyper-fixation of rapid growth and flashy technology. This leads to a disregard for solving core business challenges, ultimately resulting in a lack of stability and long-term profitability. It’s critical to shift this approach and prioritize providing replicable solutions to relevant issues before investing in alluring technology products.

Suppose the objective is to introduce an innovative solution to new, niche problems in a manner previously unseen in the market. In that case, you don’t need to be bold — you need to be daring enough to believe in your company’s clairvoyance and knowledgeable enough about the space you’re in to hold firm to that level of self-confidence, even in the face of intense headwinds.

Here’s how to start your own category to solve niche problems

Identify your unique value proposition

When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds or a potential windfall investment, what is most important is that you stay true to your company’s mission.

The most beloved and valued companies built categories where none existed to offer solutions that others couldn’t even imagine. There’s a reason why Apple has maintained its presence as the most valuable company on Earth: The emergence of the iPhone came at a time when users needed to carry their iPods, cell phones, laptops, and planners individually. For the first time, there was a single device that could be all of these items.

Contrast that to a product like Threads, which offers a simple alteration of an existing product and has failed to maintain users. The sales pitch of “We offer the same product as what’s already in the market, just a little bit different” is far weaker than “Here’s a solution that didn’t exist before.” In my career helping brands connect with their communities on their platforms, I have witnessed how this strategy reaps greater rewards than copying existing solutions.

In 2018–2019, I started a journey to take on traditional social giants and provide an alternative way for brands to develop online brand-centric communities. At the time, Facebook had several infamous scandals around misuse of personal data, so Amity set out on a mission to improve and democratize social networks, hoping to build them in a better form that fosters positive user interaction while respecting user data privacy.

This idea, coincidentally, came at a time when enterprises were facing diminishing control over their customer interactions on social media due to API restrictions, data privacy regulations, and evolving monetization strategies — an unforeseeable set of problems that called for an innovative solution. I recognized that connecting with customers online and social media platforms didn’t need to be interdependent, which inspired me to create a solution where there wasn’t one.

Amity — a white-label, customizable, ready-to-use social features technology — allows companies to build independent communities online and regain control of customer relationships and data. If, six years ago, someone told you that consumers would be using a motor brand’s app to connect en masse with strangers online, you’d probably have asked, “Why don’t they just use Facebook?” But now, half a decade and many tech scandals later, that’s what our tools are enabling companies like that to accomplish.

Don’t wait for the market to mature or you’ll miss your opportunity to make your mark

When I launched Amity, I knew market education would be a significant hurdle. The concept of “vertical social networks” was only beginning to gain traction, and very few use cases outside of Nextdoor and Strava had been seen. The novelty of our product in a new market meant that customer feedback and, consequently, product direction were not as clear-cut as our engineers preferred.

Target a core audience, get in front of them, and offer unparalleled support

Once we had a proof of concept, we knew we needed to scale and get in front of our market. This is the most valuable and critical step: Even with an excellent product, its potential remains untapped if not presented to the right audience. To reach and educate potential users, we implemented the following strategies:

  • Precision in targeting key audiences online: In launching Amity, we honed in on companies seeking heightened engagement for their mobile apps or websites and individuals aspiring to create their own online networks. These precise parameters guided our marketing efforts on platforms like LinkedIn and Google, ensuring the visibility of relevant results.
  • Meeting customers where they are: Recognizing the importance of direct engagement, we actively participated in events attended by our target audience. Our overarching goal was to empower them with insights on building, managing, and moderating their online communities. Employing diverse channels such as content creation, event participation, podcasts, and speaking engagements allowed us to connect with prospects and share our innovative ideas effectively.
  • Providing unparalleled support to early adopters: We embraced a high-touch approach for our initial customers and established a dedicated “technical success and support” team to resolve any product glitches or feature gaps. This team played an integral role in guiding our first customers through the technical intricacies of our product, ensuring a smooth introduction, implementation, and successful launch of the Amity SDK in their respective applications.

Collect metrics to demonstrate your unique value proposition

You’ve gotten off the starting block, which is often the hardest step, but now you need to chart and maintain a solid pace for the rest of the race to make it to the finish line. Simple: You continue to build off and update your main product while collecting metrics that showcase its efficacy.

Take our work with our first client, TrueID. They came to us looking for a way to build engagement in what was nominally a streaming platform. Their goal was to make it an all-encompassing app that fostered a self-sustaining ecosystem where their viewers weren’t simply watching content but were interacting with the content and their platform.

So, we built a live chat function for them ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup to capture all the online chatter that would typically occur on third-party apps like Twitter in real time on their platform. The result was a more than 30% increase in their customer engagement rate, resulting in tens of millions of additional interactions throughout the tournament.

From that, we could understand what customers wanted and could present our technology in a way that made their benefits obvious to brands. We could tell prospective clients that features like live chat can increase consumer engagement by as much as 30%, and from there, we went about inventing other white-labeled features: Activity feeds, livestreaming, and forum features all followed that initial chat creation.

As a result, we can tell prospective companies that our existing clients have increased their average customer spend 2.8x by implementing our solutions, increased current user engagement by 35%, or increased owned platform user acquisition by 30%.

These numbers helped companies like Noom, Planta, and Harley-Davidson sign on the dotted line and believe a greater truth: It’s not enough to say your technology works; you need to show it with data. That practice allowed us to scale our solutions to more than 20 million monthly users roughly three years after our founding.

So now what?

Once you have the idea, prepped with industry knowledge, identified a potential customer base, created systems to ensure you can capitalize on your initial customers, and cultivated potential investment partners to help get you off the ground, what’s left?

The percentages will always work against you, so pay them no mind. The potential “big fish” or client immediately making your company profitable will almost certainly come into your orbit in the first year or two. When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds or a potential windfall investment, what is most important is that you stay true to your company’s mission.

If Amity had listened to all the naysayers who didn’t think it was worthwhile to take on tech giants in 2020, we wouldn’t be around today. Similarly, if we had changed our entire platform or company mission in our infancy to attract a big Fortune 100 client, the chances we’d still be here would be minimal.

Instead, as with anything worthwhile, find others passionate about the same things as you and build — little by little, day by day — with the big picture in mind. Focus on solving problems, and once you get customers in the door, do everything you can to help them solve their problems in real time.