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Why not being first might be your biggest advantage

One of the philosophies I struggled with in my formative years was from a great basketball movie, “White men can’t jump”. It went something like this:

“Sometimes when you lose you actually win and sometimes when you win you actually lose, and sometimes when you win or lose you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie you actually win or lose. ”


Although it frustrated me then, in retrospect, I can see how this is applicable in business and is probably most painful when you think you’ve won… only to be beaten at the punch.

But what about the more positive flip-side – when being second actually gives you an advantage?

 It’s very thought-provoking and inspirational. The author considers the high value placed on innovation and being first, and then proceeds to provide a strong argument why being a fleet-footed follower can give a business an advantage over first-movers in that sphere.

Amongst the examples of these types of successes he cites:

  1. AltaVista -> Google
  2. VisiCalc -> Lotus 123 -> Excel
  3. Netscape -> Internet Explorer
  4. IBM PC -> Compaq -> Dell
  5. Friendster –> Facebook
  6. Blackberry –> iPhone

If you’re like me, the companies listed on the right hand will be far more familiar [and perceptibly successful] than those on the left.

The success of the “fast followers” isn’t attributed to any single factor, but the failure of the “first-mover” is often linked to “inferior management decisions”.

So does that mean that failure of the first-movers is more important than the decisions of the followers?

I don’t know if I would agree with that. After all, being a first-mover comes not only with the necessary innovation, but requires visionaries who can pave the way in leading a business [and sometimes an industry] where no-one has gone before. Bad decisions are inevitable as are some failures, but these are generally high-quality people just to get there in the first place.

Surely there must be more than the “fast followers” did to end up in front? I’d say luck has something to do with it, for sure, but I’d also think they learned from the leaders’ mistakes and that they learned from other [unrelated] industries. They must have to have stayed the course and overtaken the leaders.

Nevertheless, there are some excellent lessons for entrepreneurs [South African entrepreneurs take note!] noted in the article:

  1. Never stop innovating
  2. Build a well-rounded management team early
  3. Value sales and marketing talent as much as technical talent
  4. React quickly to disruptive technologies or business models
  5. Don’t be too proud to imitate when it makes sense

I think all of us underestimate the fourth point and often dismiss the fifth one.

So think about it – even if you weren’t first in your field, you’ve still got a chance to be the best! What is it that will set you apart from the rest?

You’re probably closer to the answer than you realise.
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