Startups face this question a lot- “Someone is already working on a similar idea! Why are you pursuing it?” Especially with the number of startups increasing in this age of the internet and information disseminating at speeds previously unheard of, the earth has become a small playground. And there are bound to be others who’re working or already have worked on the same idea as yours.
This question firstly touches upon competition and at a deeper level, is a disguise for the question as to how do entrepreneurs size up risk.
Let’s take up competition first- Tony Stubblebine has written a great compendium on everything there is to know about competition which, if summarized, would say, “Do your thing, don’t worry about competition.” Exploring further, people are still hesitant about sharing a startup idea or something they’re building for the fear that someone will steal it. If this is the thought process, the startup is anyways not going to work because if someone can steal it just by listening to the idea, there’s no real IP or differentiator we’re talking about. As they say “Ideas don’t matter, execution is everything” (more on that here).
And now going deeper, when someone tells you, “I know a few people who’re already doing this”- What do you say? What do you think? As an entrepreneur, you sometimes want to close yourself from the external noise and just focus on the task at hand but such voices become bothersome at times. I decided to consult Sai Gaddam, a computational neuroscientist who has studied psychology and is himself an entrepreneur (developer of MakkhiChoose). He says that for entrepreneurs, this is actually a disguised question about risk: "Why will you be the ones to win this race?" Almost all startups have competition -- companies trying to solve the same or very similar problems-- till they discover a niche, pivot, or simply outrun all of them. This is inherently risky, which is why so few succeed. Risk is at the heart of the entrepreneurial venture.
So how do you, the entrepreneur, size up risk?
Sai suggests that you must avoid confirmation bias so you don't discount genuine concerns about your product. If multiple people think the product isn't a great enough improvement to warrant a switch, but your roommate thinks it’s awesome and his are the only words you pay attention to, congratulations, you have put on your confirmation bias blinders!
That said, you must also try and see what makes the naysayers different. Most grownups would have dismissed the idea of a website where you pour out your hearts and hold them up in drinking pictures -- but Zuckerberg knew they weren't his audience. So, on the other end, you must also learn to overcome risk aversion. Objectivity doesn't come naturally; you must question irrational confidence, and you must also ward off unreasonable dejection.
So try to answer that question in the most sunny optimistic fashion and also the darkest fatalistic manner. The right answer will be in the middle. To put it in simpler words, there will always be competition and others in the space and people will point fingers. But if you believe in what you’re doing, and you have the confidence to convince a handful of others, there’s no reason to feel paranoid. Just go out there and do it!