The other day someone asked me a question so ridiculous I almost spit out the beer I was drinking:

“How did you manage to make custom t-shirts so cool and sexy?”

I explained how our company was pretty un-sexy in my eyes. I even admitted I’m not super passionate about t-shirts.

The product is not the purpose

So why am I building an unsexy company selling a product I’m not super passionate about? Because the real goal is to help other people grow great businesses. And that’s something I really care about. We happen to be doing this via a very unsexy business model that’s been around for 100 years: custom promotional merchandise. But that’s okay. And I think others in the startup ecosystem need to embrace a little unsexiness too. Here’s why.

The “coolness” factor of your product, or lack therof, has nothing to do with your startup’s success.

For most companies, there’s a direct correlation between how boring your startup is & how much money you make. This is why I don’t understand why everyone in the tech community is so obsessed with creating cool, sexy products. Why is the implied goal of tech startups to build the coolest new product that makes your techie friends, tech community, and the venture capitalists you’re lusting after go ooh and ahh? Having the hot startup du-jour or being the coolest geek in your community does not equal startup success.

Your role models are boring and ugly

What really baffles me is how the tech community admires so many unsexy companies, yet marches onward building cool things instead of solving real problems. For example:

  • Amazon sells books over the internet. Not sexy. Not even in ’95. Nobody walks into a bookstore and goes ‘Ooh, ahh. Look how cool these books are! I want to start a business that sells books!’ But Amazon is a pretty cool company, aren’t they?
  • LinkedIn puts resumes online. Resumes are boring. But with their recent IPO & $8 billion market cap, Reid Hoffman is laughing all the way to the bank.
  • 37signals helps you mange projects using fairly basic software. Project management sucks. But their company has a cachet most startups only dream of. They also rake in cash and have Jeff Bezos as a mentor and investor. That’s sexy.
  • Keurig brews coffee. But they do it differently. Different is sexy.
  • Freshbooks creates invoices and helps you get paid. Accounts Receivable is as boring and tedious as it gets. But Mike McDerment bootstrapped his company to the market-leading position within the very boring niche of online invoicing.

These business models are all simple and boring. Amazon wasn’t the first company to sell books. LinkedIn didn’t invent the resume. People have been brewing coffee and writing invoices for who knows how long. Yet all of these companies are wildly successful.

Look for the opportunity

The takeaway? Instead of looking at existing human behavioral habits as a bad thing, look at it like an opportunity. If you can change how people do something they’ve always done, you’re probably solving a real problem. When you solve, or even just slightly improve upon, boring but important issues, you’ll have more customers and cash than you ever dreamed of.

Amazon forever changed how people buy books. Jeff Bezos has impacted far more people than most startups ever will. Changing the world doesn’t mean you have to create innovation out of thin air. It’s perfectly fine, and often highly profitable, to incrementally improve the status quo.

The Bottom Line

Unsexy startups don’t get the attention they deserve because people hate change more than they hate new ideas. It’s easier for people to accept new ideas (sexy startups) than it is to change existing behaviors (unsexy startups).