Being best beats being first

Being best beats being first

Sometimes being "first to market" means you're doing all the hard work for someone else. Maybe it's time to slow down and reconsider

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout is undeniably a classic text and should be read by anyone in this industry. However, it should be read carefully because many of its assumptions and recommendations are less valid (or entirely invalid) in the market today.

So much for immutability!

Their first rule, the "Rule of Leadership," states that it's better to be first than it is to be better.

How did the leader achieve its leadership? Not by introducing a better product or service. Invariably the leader in the category got to be the leader by being the first brand in the category.

It just doesn't work that way anymore. The speed at which the market moves now, combined with a massive amount of online information regarding product superiority, as well as a tremendous number of options in almost any category, has render the "The Rule of Leadership" almost completely obsolete.

How many businesses can you name that were the first in their category?

  • First mp3 player? (MPMan F10)
  • First online bookseller? (Interloc/Alibris)
  • First online shoe store? (
  • First department store? (Bon Marché)
  • First digital camera? (FUJIX DS-1P)
  • First cell phone? (DynaTAC 8000X)
  • First smartphone (IBM Simon)
  • First tablet? (Linus Write-Top)

In each of those cases, the household name that comes to mind instantly wasn't the first in the category, it was the underdog who out-innovated and out-designed the original.

In many ways, being first can actually put you at a disadvantage. You take all the painful lessons of the first one in a category, and while you're nursing your wounds, a new player jumps in and surpasses you because you couldn't recover fast enough. They learn from your mistakes and adapt accordingly.

Every new market is a minefield, and the first person to run out there probably isn't going to be among those that make it to the other side.

Think of how many well-established companies have tumbled in recent years because they coasted on their supposed market leadership while scrappy upstarts came up with better or more cost-effective ways to do what they were already doing. It's so much easier to spin up a business now than it was in years past that even if you invent something completely unique and original, if it shows any success you've got maybe 6-12 months before you have a nearly identical twin in the market. That's not much of an advantage.

There are a few situations where being first can make sense, of course. If being first allows you to tie up all the intellectual property, you've got a good shot. Or if you can keep innovating fast enough to perpetually stay in front of the underdogs nipping at your heels, you're golden. However, both of these exceptions are pretty rare.

While it's still healthy to get out into a newish category with little competition, don't count on it giving you any significant strategic advantage over time. What keeps you in business is how hard you push and how fast you can change. If you push harder and faster, you're eventually going to beat the first movers, regardless of how much of a head start they got on you.