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Recently I wrote a post titled Competition where I listed out a set of topics that summarizes my philosophy around competition. I’m involved in a lot of companies, many of which are either the market leader in their segment, fighting head to head with a few other companies for clear market leadership, going after an existing incumbent, or creating a new segment entirely. As a result I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about competition, as well as executing a variety of strategies to address competitive dynamics.
The first topic I want to address is the idea of being the first mover. Several people challenged this idea in the comments and there are many investors that like to invest in “fast followers” (I’m not one of them.) There’s also a well worn cliche that you can identify early leaders as they are the ones with arrows in their back. While I understand the convention wisdom around this, especially in the context of corporate strategy and general innovation theory, I take a different approach, especially in very fast moving markets like the ones I invest in.
When I talk about first mover, I don’t think of being a broad “market” first mover, but rather a “category” or “segment” first mover. In an article I wrote recently for Reuters titled Note to entrepreneurs: Your idea is not special I made the point that “the products and their subsequent companies became great because of execution.”
“Google? Not the first search engine. Facebook? Not the first social network. Groupon? Not the first deal site. Pandora? Not the first music site. The list goes on. Even when you go back in time to the origins of the software industry: MS-DOS – not the first operating system. Lotus 1-2-3 – not the first spreadsheet.”
So, when I talk about being the first mover, I don’t mean “being the first person to come up with the idea.” Rather, I mean that when you begin executing your business, you need to aggressively be the first mover in the current phase of the innovation cycle. While Facebook wasn’t the first social network in the Web 2.0 era, they out-executed everyone else dramatically, and cemented their first mover advantage when they launched the Facebook platform at their first F8 developers conference in 2007. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, but once it established itself as the first real computer in your pocket with a tightly integrated app economy, there was no looking back until Android started to challenge it.
When I go through our portfolio at Foundry Group, I consider many of the companies we’ve invested in to be first movers in their current segment. Others are fighting with a few other companies to be clear leaders, and, as a result, first mover status is ambiguous. In these situations, I encourage the companies I’m an investor in to Do More Faster, right now. If you are in a fight to be in the pole position, you have a few choices:
- Invest targeted resources more aggressively in areas that you think will put you in the lead. Basically, double down on your bets.
- Buy one of your competitors or a complimentary company that will leapfrog your business ahead.
- Change the game, usually by redefining the segment you are playing in.
If you aren’t the first mover, and one of your competitors is steadily leaving you behind in their dust, changing the game is usually the best approach. My measurement window here is usually six months, not five years. Assuming the markets and products evolve rapidly, you have a lot of chances to change the game early on in your life. That ability changes when you’ve clearly defined your path and competitive universe. But don’t be afraid to weave around as you are looking for the segment where you can become the first mover.
In my little corner of the universe, the ultimate first mover was Steve Prefontaine, one of my heroes. The dude always raced from the front. Early on, his coach and Nike co-founder, the amazing Bill Bowerman, encouraged him to “change the game” by running the 3 mile (5k) instead of the mile. Pre rarely lost (usually only in the mile) and always put in an amazing performance. In the process of running from the front, he demoralized his competitors.
As I said in the intro post, these are my ideas and I’d love to hear different perspectives. Challenge me on anything you disagree with.
I think about competition all the time. Every company we invest in aspires to lead whatever market segment it is in. In many cases, they want to create entirely new markets. Regardless, they always have competition, whether from other startups, existing companies, large incumbents, or companies they don’t even know about yet.
Whenever the startup world heats up, there are many more new entrants. We’re once again in the part of the cycle where there are an abundance of new companies being started. While there are plenty of unique ones, there are a much larger number of “me toos” and “fast followers”. While VCs love to put this on entrepreneurs (for not being innovative / creative enough) and entrepreneurs love to put this on VCs (for just funding me too like things), this isn’t really anyone’s fault as it’s the natural cycle of things and has been going on forever (see Clay Christensen’s excellent “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” for the classic examples of this.)
I’ve worked with many entrepreneurs who have spent an enormous amount of time thrashing with the issues of competition. Sometimes I’ve been on the winning team and sometimes I’ve been on the losing team. This experience has helped me develop a pretty clear view on how to think about competition that I regularly use. Following are a set of topics – which I’ll write more about in the coming weeks – that nicely summarize my philosophy.
- Be the First Mover
- Resegment If You Aren’t In The Top Three
- Create the Best Product
- Provide the Best Customer Experience
- Have a Long Term Strategy
- Understand the Ecosystem You Are Competing In
- Obsessively Focus On While Ignoring Your Competition
- Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer
There is an age old VC cliche that the market leader gets most of the rewards, #2 gets enough to be interesting, #3 might make a little money, and all of the rest are irrelevant. This cliche strongly informs my perspective and you’ll see it woven through what I’ll write about.
I’m especially focused on the evolution over time of competitive responses. Nothing stays static and the software / Internet industry is one of the most vigorously competitive in the history of man. There are an increasing number of externalities – such as government regulation and patent strategies (both NPEs/trolls and big company patent thickets) that occasionally get focused on but in my experience are not what actually matters. More specifically, I think that if the government completely left the software / Internet industry alone and software patents were abolished, the software / Internet industry would have even more vibrant competition.
I’ll try to stay out of politics in the upcoming posts since I don’t think entrepreneurs can do much, especially at the early stages of their companies, about these externalities. Instead, I’ll focus on the things that I think really matter and can make or break a company in the first five years of its life.
Of course, like all blog series, I’d love any comments and feedback, especially if you disagree with me, as that’s the best way for me to continue to evolve my thinking.