We're bootstrapping our latest business idea. Everything I've done has been boostrapped. This will be a complete stop and change direction (so could be a total distraction for a month while we research, meet potential customers etc).
It's an idea we had 12 years ago and couldn't make happen as to be blunt internet tech wasn't up to it, although we had a basic framework (Oh to have had Ajax!). We had done customer discovery and validated there was a group willing to pay. The same gap exists, albeit a little narrower, but for the most part unchanged. The market has grown significantly, but still operates in a broadly offline manner - even though there are web enabled services they are a swish front end on the offline workflow.
The idea is of the Basecamp model - tighter, smaller and simpler - to target a particular niche, but emphasising better workflow. Similar infrastructure and pricing model to them also, so it's cashflow positive.
I've read and reread Criteria for judging viability, and many other resources on the topic over the years. It still seems sound, and viable.
A chance meeting with a business owner last week identified that this type of solution is desired still.
I find it amazing to see that no one has found and occupied that space in the meantime. No one appears to have even tried. We've tried to understand why no one has, but can't!
I can't help but feel that if no one has taken the space in 12 years we're missing something fundamental - what more can I do to reassure myself or find the "gotcha"?
Edited to add: Am I making too much of that feeling we're missing something? Would you find a complete absence of players in an apparently available and profitable niche off-putting? Or just get on with it?
(It's possibly also worth mentioning that it would need investment to get to the right level of service, which would be a first for us.)
Have you asked your potential customers if there are competitors in this space? That's where I'd go next. Find some industry leaders and ask them, (using that opportunity to pitch them on your own idea and gauge reactions).
I'd guess the lack of replies might have to do with the vagueness of the question, but you seem to have met the minimum standards for at least taking the next steps. If your niche is very narrow, and particularly if it's not very online-oriented, not being able to find competitors isn't a reason not to move forward. i.e. yes, you're probably over-thinking it. :)
That said, I couldn't find any competitors for my current idea until a few weeks into my research and I finally found one, and was almost surprised at that point (and a touch relieved).
And even if you do have them, if you can't find them, chances are your prospects can't either, and if you are confident you've got a market who will buy, I say get busy. My guess is you've got a heckuva marketing challenge on your hands to make it fly. (Then again, don't we all)
There are many good reasons to know who the customer will experience as the competition as part of launching your start-up. Not least among them is that it is a critical variable in developing your marketing and sales material.
So, lets make a hypothetical assumption that there is no competitor in your space.
Stop thinking about your space. And start thinking about the customer's.
When the customer will be considering making a purchase of your product/service -- what alternatives will be in their mind?
The first automobile didn't have competitors in their space -- if they defined it as automobiles. But if they thought about the customers perspective -- the automobile was trying to serve a transportation purpose-- they had a horse and carriage for that. The car's initial competition was the horse and carriage. (Perhaps that is why the initial branding was selling a "horse-less carriage")
Maybe the decision the customer makes is between you and doing nothing -- so your competitor is apathy. That can be a powerful competitor and will require a very different market penetration strategy than if there was a easy simple situation like an existing product in the market.
Maybe the decision the customer makes will be brand new because they never consider the problem you are solving as something they needed to address (or in marketing language -- knew they could") That will result in even another type of marketing campaign.
So as you talk with your customer's as wisely recommended by @Carson, and @Andy -- don't so define your product and niche that the customer reinforces your preconceived notion. Broaden the scope and inquire with the customer about why they haven't solved xyz problem, or if they know if anyone can deliver a zyx solution.
As someone who works in marketing -- and needs to develop the campaigns that will allow for adoption and market penetration -- my maxim is that there is always competition. Always. You just need to listen hard enough to hear who it is.
You really won't know who your competition is until your customers tell you....like the doorstop maker who finds out there are no other doorstop makers in town because the door maker includes locking hinges on every door.
Or maybe no one has ever seen a need for keeping their door open, so you will need to educate them on that to expand your niche.
In any event, I'd get going on it and ignore competition until prospects start bringing it up as a reason they do not want your prod/serv.
Good answers all around. I'll just highlight one terribly important bit of startup lore:
There must be competition. If there isn't, then you're 98% sure to have no market. Thus, if you really do a thorough search and come up with no competitors what so ever, then you should start to worry a great deal about the viability of your idea.
The argument goes something like this: People all over the world have thought of how to satisfy customers. Whatever you can think of has already been thought of by someone else. So if you can't find anyone else who is already satisfying this customer need, then:
There are a few situations where having no competition is okay: This is really rare, but generally it revolves around development of new technology, or businesses which require supporting businesses that have only just appeared. So the crux here is; there is demand, there is no competition, but that's only because until now nobody was capable of making the product.
Think about this. And if you continue with your market research and really find no competition, then you should think very carefully about why that is. It's a huge red flag, and potentially it indicates that there is no market.