Don’t Be First to Market, Be First to Scale

Often when people have an idea for a great new product or service, they rush to be first to market with it. We keep hearing about first-mover advantage and how you need it.

The only problem with first-move advantage is that it doesn’t seem to exist. The academic research on the topic shows that there is no such thing.

The first definitive work on this was done by David Teece in 1986 (pdf version of the paper here). He found that innovators capture about 20% of the profits generated by their new ideas. Followers and imitators capture slightly more. Suppliers get some of the benefit, but the big winners are customers, who get about 40% of the benefit of new ideas.

The study was done 25 years ago, but subsequent work has consistently found similar results.

Part of this is because innovations diffuse across an S-Curve – and this usually takes longer than we expect it to.

How can innovators try to capture more of the profits generated by their great ideas? It’s not by being first to market. In his excellent new book Sidestep & Twist: How to create hit products and services that people will queue up to buy,James Gardner suggests that one way to address this problem is use network effects to accelerate the S-Curve – to be the first to scale.

He uses the five factors that Rogers identified as the key characteristics that drive adoption, and reframes them for the network economy. His thesis is that by taking advantage of networks, you can move through the slow part of the S-Curve more quickly. This increases your chance of winning.

The five factors are:

  1. Observability: how easy is it for people to see how the innovation works? In networks terms, does usage increase through viral effects? Think about the social games on Facebook, like Farmville. Every time one of your friends played Farmville, you get an update about it. This continues until you either start playing Farmville yourself, or you block all updates related to it. That’s observability.
  2. Trialability: how easy is it for people to try out the new idea? In a network, trials are experiments. The more people test out your idea, the more likely it is that emergent properties will show up. This is how you find unexpected new uses for your idea, which expands your number of users, moving you through the S-Curve more quickly.
  3. Consistency with how we currently behave: can we fit the new idea into our existing routines? Or does it require us to do new things? The former leads to faster adoption. Within a network, this leads to herd behaviour. Gardner’s example of this is Amazon’s recommendation engine, where the more people use it, the more valuable it is, leading to more people using it.
  4. Relative Advantage: is your new idea substantially better than what it’s competing against? One way to get this is to build in effects where the more people use it, the better/cheaper/faster it gets. Think about Amazon’s recommendation engine again. Or Google. Google wasn’t the first search engine (not even close), so how did it come to dominate? By being substantially better than the others, and by using an algorithm that improved search results the more people used it.
  5. Complexity: is the new idea simpler to use than its competitors? In network terms, does increasing use lead to great simplicity? For this, Gardner talks about how “crowds of people, learning and sharing together, make it less difficult for others to join their crowd.” His example is Wikipedia – which is trying to catalog a huge amount of knowledge. The more people participate in Wikipedia, the easier this gets. And their value proposition improves.

I love the idea of using network effects to move through the S-Curve more quickly. This quick recap doesn’t do the idea justice – it’s worth checking out the book to learn more.

In the meantime, if you are innovating and you are early in the diffusion curve, ask yourself this: how can I take advantage of networks to increase the use of my great idea? If you think about this in terms of the five factors from Rogers, your chances of capturing the value that you create will increase.

So don’t try to be first to market. Try to be the first to scale.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “Don’t Be First to Market, Be First to Scale

  1. This one really struck me, Tim. Among the projects near and dear to me at present, Gearbox Magazine is always front and center. At first glance, it’s just another automotive blog/magazine, but I see it as a candle burning on the internet which will eventually start fires worldwide – I see it as the start of a global movement.

    We struggle with the usual things, growing readership, increasing engagement, monetization, etc., but these five elements really stand out. I can see how they fit into our model and I can see how we need to improve our performance in this one or that.

    It’s exciting to read through these with an idea in mind. Before there are test cases or data to report, how to we improve visibility or make it easy for people to try it for themselves? How do we show the relatively small effort needed to get from where we are right now to this exciting new place?

    Thanks for sharing this, sir! Kudos!

    • Thanks for the feedback Brian. The whole point here is to write useful stuff, so it’s great to hear that this could be actionable for you. I hope it helps!

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