The Most Common Formulas for Startup Success

06/11/2013 03:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 11, 2013

We're all familiar with the common cliché of entrepreneurialism: Joe or Jane McEntrepreneur were trying to book a flight/find flattering support garments/rent a car and were profoundly dissatisfied with the experience. Incensed, they set out to design a better more streamlined way -- and did, earning millions in the process. It seems for entrepreneurs it is dissatisfaction, rather than necessity, that drives invention. And while this cliché certainly has its foundation in truth, it's woefully incomplete. The truth is, the average startup iterates multiple times before they find the right product, often drawing up new ways to find traction. Here are five of the most common I've come across within the startup community.

Startup Algebra
There's an old yarn you learn in film school about the power of the pithy pitch (say that five times fast). The story goes that when the original Alien movie screenwriters were shopping the film around, they finally got the green light when they summed it up to studio execs by saying "It's Jaws. In space." In many ways, the same thing is happening in the startup world. "It's Facebook. But for pets." or "It's Artsy meets Dropbox meets Fab". Our tendency to do this speaks to the fact that there are very few -- if any -- truly new ideas. Whether consciously or not, most entrepreneurs are simply applying old ideas to new industries, or smashing two seemingly unrelated ideas (or existing businesses) together.

Startup Subtraction
Many great entrepreneurs and inventors ask themselves a seemingly straightforward question when they embark on a startup journey: "How could I make this easier?" Half the genius of some of the greatest entrepreneurs -- Steve Jobs springs immediately to mind -- is the ability to remove the superfluous, unnecessary, or unwieldy from an existing system, product, or experience. Many great ideas generally evolve from one simple exercise, simply asking yourself "What is it about an existing product, service, or experience that could -- and therefore should -- be less of a hassle?" Ultimately, the end goal is to subtract the unnecessary and streamline the process.

Startup Singularity
Many entrepreneurs are born with an inherit desire to spend their life pursuing a passion; and the most fortunate of the group hopefully identifies it early on in their careers. There's an old adage that entrepreneurs like to live by that says: "Figure out what you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life." The harsh reality is that any kind of startup is really, really hard work, but the rewards at the end of the day overpower the reality of how much work you put in. No matter how fast a vesting schedule or how convivial an office culture, the only thing that can truly sustain you on the bad days is having a deep, personal interest in your area of focus. You stay focused and have a connection with your area of focus throughout your entire journey. The most successful entrepreneurs genuinely love what they do, and not simply because of the potential payoff. I once met a pair of British entrepreneurs living in France who loved nothing more than spending all day in a pub -- meeting up with friends, watching a soccer game, and giving each other the requisite hard time about just about everything. For an entrepreneurial class as part of their MBA coursework at Insead, they decided to draft the business plan for an English-style microbrewery in Paris -- mainly because the research phase would involve a lot of sitting around in bars. But during the process of launching their fictitious company, they realized there really was an opportunity to make a living doing exactly what they loved, and went on to successfully launch seven such pubs, sprinkled all over the city.

This prompted me to ask new hires what they would do with their lives if every career paid the same. If the gap between their truest desires and the job on offer is simply too wide, I encourage them to keep looking. Not because they can't be successful with us, too, but because they'll likely be even more successful elsewhere - when they are driven by passion as much as profit.

Startup Optimization
Sometimes entrepreneurs benefit by letting someone else lay the groundwork for their ideas. Indeed, a great many startups are born by simply building a better mousetrap; that's to say observing a compelling business already in existence but that's struggling to find traction. You can easily learn from your surroundings, when you just take a step back and observe what others have done. These entrepreneurs have the ability to recognize that the idea itself is sound, but the execution is flawed. In this case, they simply address the oversight of the previous version and improve it. Instagram quite famously beat Hipstamatic to the jaw dropping $1 billion dollar prize by understanding the role social needed to play in the app's experience. By the time Hipstamatic realized their error, Instagram had almost four times the amount of users, largely muscling them out of a competitive niche market. Learn from others.

Startup Sequencing
Many great entrepreneurs don't have new ideas at all, but they do have a great ability to copy and paste. Fortunes have been made by openly and even gleefully repurposing or simply regurgitating existing ideas in new markets and quite frankly being one step ahead. For example, one of Europe's most successful digital entrepreneurs are a trio of brothers named Marc, Alexander and Oliver Samwer from Germany. They are known as the "clone" kings, having built a reputation of copying existing high-growth web companies, like Pinterest, GroupOn, or Airbnb and launching them in Europe or Asia. They have even sold their businesses back to the very people (often Stateside) who came up with the idea originally. It's a strategy that has made them plenty of enemies, but also plenty of money. You must pick and choose your battles when you have an entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps it's not the idealized version of entrepreneurialism we all fall in love with, but one can't underestimate the power of simply importing success and creating more of it for yourself.