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Do Successful Startups Come in Multiples of Threes?

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By Michal Tsur (Co-Founder & President, Kaltura) and Leah Belsky (VP of Strategy, Kaltura)

When Cyota started more than 12 years ago, it was developing a solution to provide online shoppers with a single use online credit card number, so that their primary card would never be revealed online. It sounded like an extremely innovative idea at the time, particularly because e-commerce was not well developed yet, and shoppers were very concerned.

Shockingly –- there were 3 different companies (1 out of Israel, 1 out of India, and 1 out of Ireland) who were developing the exact same solution at the exact same time.

It seems like good startups, like good ideas, come in threes, or even fours.

In today’s celebrity culture, where we hold up the startup founder or patent registrant as superstar, visionary, and inventor extraordinaire, the concept might seem surprising. But for those studying the history of innovation, simultaneous invention is now the norm.

As Stephen Johnson notes in Where Good Ideas Come From:

“One of the most remarkable patterns in all of intellectual history [is] what scholars now call “the multiple:” A brilliant idea occurs to a scientist or inventor somewhere in the world, and he goes public with his remarkable finding, only to discover that three other minds had independently come up with the same idea in the past year. Sunspots were simultaneously discovered in 1611 by four scientists living in four different countries… The law of conservation of energy was formulated separately four times in the late 1840’s. (34)”

Given the Cyota experience, we looked through the history of Internet startups to see if a similar trend holds, and it indeed it seems it does:

Early Search Engines: Altavista, Ask.com, Yahoo Search
Social Networking – Friendster, MySpace, Facebook
Social Bookmarking – Delicious, Digg, Reddit
Online Video Editing – Jumpcut, EyeSpot, Cuts
Instant Messaging – Powwow, ICQ
Video Sharing – YouTube, Metacafe, Daily Motion
Webmail Systems – Hotmail, Yahoo mail, AOL mail
Video Advertising – Tremor-media, AdapTV, Yume
Shopping Comparison – Dealtime, My Simon, ShopSmart

Great startups, like classic inventions, represent the product of networked individuals collectively identifying real needs in the world and simultaneously deciding to address these needs.

Startup founders and entrepreneurs: next time an investor asks you to do a market analysis, take a real look around for those competitors. If you find them, you should see it as a sign of your brilliance and a foreshadowing of good things to come.

But more importantly, the notion that startups come in threes has profound implications for how we cultivate innovation in entrepreneurial communities and the amount of weight we put on the good idea relative to other indicators of startup success.

This post was originally posted at Open Technology.

About the guest co-blogger: Michal Tsur is Co-Founder and President of Kaltura, the developer of the leading open source video platform, powering video and media management, publishing and monetization for leading media companies, universities and enterprises. Prior to Kaltura, Michal co-founded Cyota, a leading anti-fraud and security company, whose products are used by thousands of financial institutions world-wide (acquired by RSA Security). Follow her on Twitter at @michts.

About the guest co-blogger: Leah Belsky is Vice President of Strategic Development and Associate General Counsel at Kaltura, a “TechCrunch Top 40″ and Intel Capital funded company launching the world’s first open source media platform – the “Redhat of Video” focused on new media, education, and cultivation of entrepreneurial communities. Her work focuses on open and collaborative systems, international development, and the future of education. Follow her on Twitter at @leahbel.

  • http://www.launchbit.com Elizabeth Yin

    I agree with a number of the examples above and also agree that people tend to congregate around similar schools of thought around the same time. (E.g. Renaissance era, etc)

    That said, just because an idea is being pursued by 3-4 other companies doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good one. My failed startup Parrotview, a real-time social shopping application, also had a 2-3 competitors out there who were getting great press and funding. But, ultimately, while we may have all congregated around the same idea that *sounded* good, it wasn’t one that any of us were able to make work…

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