I Googled my idea and found another company that has been doing the same thing for a few years. It's for somewhat of a niche market, but everyone I talk to (including potential clients) says it's a great idea and they've never heard of it. So it seems like there should be plenty of room for me to grab a share of the market.
Lots of answers here say don't worry about if someone else steals your idea. You've got to do a good enough job executing your idea that it doesn't matter if someone takes it. What about being on the other side? Does it make sense for me to pursue this or to look for something truly novel?
A few examples come to mind of companies who came along and did something that had already been done, but did it better. Google is at the top of that list. Web search existed long before they started doing it! A smaller example would be agilezen.com who created an online lean project management tool and seem to be doing well even though there are other sites that do similar things.
I already know that my pricing structure will be different than that other company, but I don't know which pricing model customers will prefer. Mine is consumption based while theirs is a flat monthly fee. It seems like with the buzz around "cloud computing" that the consumption based model is gaining in popularity with SaaS products.
The other thing I noticed is that their website isn't very easy to navigate and looks like it was built 5 years ago and not updated. I can definitely create a better web experience than what they have.
The other thought I've had is that the existence of a company doing the same thing proves that it's a viable business. Are there any other factors that I should consider?
Even if your idea is novel, within days of your site going live, there will be several imitators out there hawking a similar product. You have to do the best job you can to make your product provide as much value as possible. Thus, the issue of being novel is [almost] irrelevant, since even if it is novel today, it won't be tomorrow, so why worry about that? Instead focus on being better than whatever competition is out there!
EDIT I wrote an article about this in reference to this post that you might want to read: A Novel Idea
If you look at the continuum of market dynamics from an economic perspective, at the one extreme is pure commodities where price is the only factor and at the other end of the spectrum you have a natural (or legislative) monopoly that has no competition. However, the extremes can really only exist in theory and in the "real world" all businesses are somewhere in between with either various competitors or substitute products. So, generally speaking, I agree with your point that existing competition is actually a very good indication and validation of a specific business idea. Or put another way, if you have a idea for a business that you can't find a competitor for in some form, I would either say that you were not looking very hard or that it was probably a flawed idea.
I think of competitors as valuable reference points and sources of information. In effect, they are running experiments you can't run or have chosen not to run, etc.
So with that framework in mind, and more direct to your question, what you should consider:
Overall, the most important aspect is relative differentiation between you and other competitors. Generally, at least two or three companies can exist in any particular market with at least some form of modest differentiation. Based on what you see happening in the market, are you confident you can be happy with and become one of those three?
Keep in mind that pizza was around along time before Pizza Hut & Domino's, retail goods before Walmart & burgers before McDonalds; most of their success resulted from innovative ways (ideas) to create products, improve existing products, systems & methods of distribution, etc., etc. Same for technology!
Ideas do not have to be great or unusual to launch, they need to be evaluated in terms of the risk factors unique to their execution - industry, marketing, competition, financial & others. All of these areas can be evaluated inexpensively & in stages. In fact, using this forum is one of them.
The key to getting the green light for your idea is based on proving the basic concept of who's your customer, what benefit(s) does your product or service provide & how it will be distributed. If your concept & risk factors can be effectively assessed through feasibility testing you will have your answer - go, no go or reinvent.
Never take the advice or comments of others as the underlying reason for starting a business. Do the research, ask the tough questions and most of all, don't fall in love with your idea.
I'm sure this sounds like classic MBA advice but it's not. It is 100% entrepreneurial.
It doesn't need to be novel. You just have to make the experience better or price cheaper. No matter which idea you think of, you will find someone else who has done it already. It's very hard to find a brand new idea and if you find one, its market could be very small.
Look at your competitor and do a few things different. Make your site easier to navigate and use. Offer more options or better prices. Offer better customer support. Be available to them and reply quickly. You do have to differentiate yourself. What are the pain points customer experience from using your competitor's product or service and use those to your advantage. There's a market for everyone. Maybe one day you can buy your competitor and 'eat the market'.
This is one of those cases where a single word difference changes everything:
Run with it. Go for it. It's definitely doable. "The early bird gets the worm, the second mouse gets the cheese." One trick is starting niche, then growing. Facebook did it (college crowd, then the world). To prevent other people taking your idea and running with it, think of competitive advantages or things you can do different that can't easily be mimicked. I'd be willing to talk to you more about this if you wanted.
It's not difficult to get a novel idea, what is difficult is execution, that is the secret of success.
Today it's all about executing better than the competition.
Mozy.com is a great example. The founder talks publically about how there were 50+ on-line backup businesses out there when he started his company but they all did a lousy job. He built a better, more simple and less expensive solution...that worked beautifully. He built and sold the company to EMC for $76M in less than 3 years.