Admit it. When trying to pitch your startup, you’ve been guilty of falling back on this phrase: “We’re the Uber of XYZ.”
Investors cringe when they hear this phrase. Why? Yes, it’s human nature to compare your startup idea (especially if it’s complex) with other successful companies. Doing so instantly communicates who and what you’re about and how you’ll be revolutionizing the industry. But using Uber as a crutch to explain your business can also pigeonhole your vision. Rather than being an innovator and a disruptor, you’re following the model set by another business. And it’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a startup founder.
Is your startup struggling to find the right words to convey the energy and enthusiasm behind your vision? If so, dedicating some extra time and resources to brand language development for your pitch deck can help. But what if it’s your investors or the media that’s reducing your brand to be the “Uber of XYZ” — how can your startup continue to differentiate itself?
To answer this question, I recently sat down with Malik Zakaria, the founder of Field Engineer . Field Engineer connects a global talent pool of field engineers with businesses. Nicknamed the “Uber of the Telecom Industry,” Field Engineer is turning the telecom industry upside down by revolutionizing the contracting process for telecom maintenance and installation.
Startup founders are often inundated with well-intentioned marketing advice  on everything from how to pick the right name to how to master social media. Malik understands the value in these tactics. But he’s refreshingly focused on the basics that matter most, too: identifying a problem and building a solution with the best possible team.
Tips for Entrepreneurs
Malik recently shared some key insights he’s learned since founding Field Engineer– including how to successfully handle being compared with startup giants like Uber.
Brian: What exactly is Field Engineer? The first thing that comes to mind for me is a job description or title.
Malik: The concept is simple. I’ve worked for several years in the telecom industry, and I’ve witnessed first-hand how projects get sidelined or delayed because the people with the expertise to get the job done aren’t available, or geographically too far away to respond promptly.
We launched a platform where the Field Engineers that have spare time or might be in between jobs, can pick up contracts available in their local community. When a line fails, or a new installation order is placed, telecom companies submit a work order to us. We then alert our network of Field Techs that a job is available. The project is awarded, and the issue is resolved within hours, instead of days or weeks.
Brian: Forgive me, but isn’t this just the Uber of the telecom industry?
Malik: You’re certainly not the first to ask. And there are similarities, but we’re dealing with a highly-skilled labor force. Where Uber matches drivers with individuals that need a ride, we’re matching a skilled labor-force with contracts. That adds a level of complexity that requires us to audit our contract workforce, provide ongoing training and ensure customer satisfaction.
With Uber, for example, every driver has the same general mission. Get the fare from point A to point B. In what our contract labor-force offers, we’re dealing with literally thousands of variables. What equipment will be required? What stipulations or procedures does the job provider expect the technician to comply with? Troubleshooting connection issues in a corporate office environment is significantly more complex than driving an individual from point A to B.
Brian: For the college student or aspiring entrepreneur sitting on the sidelines and watching your business grow, what is the most valuable advice you can share that will help them kick start their ideas?
Malik: Quite simply, start looking for problems. The problem I witnessed centered around dissatisfied telecom subscribers having to wait for installation or troubleshooting of their technology. I realized that telecoms were struggling to move qualified technicians around the country to keep up with the demand for Fiber and other technology.
Brian: What’s the next step an entrepreneur should take? How do they go from problem to solution?
Malik: Once you’ve identified a problem, assemble the best possible team to solve it. Don’t try to solve the problem on your own! Bring together a team with a variety of perspectives and skill sets. If you have a team of co-founders with diverse skill sets, your venture will become more dynamic and efficient. The quality of your solution will improve dramatically.
Brian: How do you take your idea to market?
Malik: When you’re ready to take your solution to the market, start small with a local test market. Find potential clients and offer to work with them for free or at a discounted rate. Test-drive every aspect of your business and work out the bugs before scaling. Walking back a problem with a few customers is far easier than fixing a problem when there are thousands of Work Orders in process.
Try to identify systemic issues quickly and focus all of your energy on fixing them. Your business might solve someone else’s problem, but don’t let that distract you from focusing on operational efficiency within your organization.
If you’re an entrepreneur or college student looking at a line of code and wondering how you can turn your dream into a business, Malik has a simple formula for success: identify a problem and assemble the best possible team to build the best possible solution. Finally, don’t discount the benefit of industry experience and knowledge. If you’re intent on creating your company, gain some industry experience. Learn the ropes on someone else’s dime. You might just stumble across a problem that you can solve by breaking out of the corporate bureaucracy and building a solution-centered startup — just like Malik did.
Image: Field Engineers