One of our most devastating modern day ailments is the belief that speed is the penultimate determinant of success. How fast we build a company, how fast (or cheap) we can do something, and how quickly we can publish something all come to mind. Being first has its merits but, in most cases, you can boil it down to nothing more than a title of quickness rather than longevity or quality.
Most people look to Apple as one of the more definitive bastions of attempting to do things the best, giving up the title of “first” “fastest” as a byproduct. I was curious myself to see the first-hand downfall of trying to overemphasize the first-mover advantage. There might be some “business school” undertones to this letter (my GPA was too low for that lol), but hopefully they’re seen more as a way to value moving deliberately vs. moving quickly.
This 2005 Harvard Business Review article looked into some 30 case studies around first mover advantages. You can certainly gain an edge by being first, but undoubtedly it remains very much case dependent. When I was younger, I felt the need to create things that were never before seen or that could earn themselves the title of “first.” But I’ve recognized that the value of being number one often brings with it some significant headwinds including:
An uphill battle to get people to understand or validate your idea:
When you’re first, there’s less chatter or marketing around what you’re trying to push. It helps to have other people in the space, which collectively brings credibility to the idea. You’re probably sick of hearing it, but NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) didn’t magically appear in late 2020.
The concept has existed since 2015 but it took the perfect storm of an emerging creator economy plus the right consumer products to propel it into the mainstream. Had you put all your efforts into NFTs just a few years ago, you would have faced significant challenges in getting people to understand and consume them given the limited existing understanding and audience at the time.
Not having the full picture:
When you take that first leap, there’s a lot of unknown variables that you’ll often need to figure out in an expensive and painful fashion. Almost all failed start-ups struggle to level up because of a myriad of problems, from poor financials to a lack of product-market fit. It’s natural to leverage capital to feel things out at the beginning, but by moving too quickly too soon, you end up rolling too fast to see the most imminent problems or challenges — much less take in the bigger picture.
In short, this means you could very well be focusing on the things that mean very little, while ignoring the bigger looming problems. There isn’t a solid solution to this beyond managing the relationship between speed and thoughtfulness. They exist at opposite sides of the spectrum, and understanding when to stay down the middle vs. when to lean to one side defines success. Once you’ve managed to build a base around solid fundamentals, only then can you move quickly.
We often look at certain opportunities as places where we need to have definitive winners and losers. Creative culture is most certainly not a zero sum game: there’s room for varied perspectives and insights. In our race to be first, we often miss out on the thoughtfulness and consideration that is required to understand the problem at heart.
When we move forward with incomplete information, we prioritize statistics and metrics as a marker of success. Time and time again, blindly applying metrics often bites us in the ass as we gain a better picture of the whole situation. One of my favorite examples on this topic is the Cobra Effect. In various historical examples, select groups would design programs to get populations to solve new problems, only to make things work or significantly upend the whole framework.
The Cobra Effect dates back to colonial-rule India where the British government would reward citizens for bringing in dead cobras to curb the high numbers at the time. The program was successful, but eventually individuals were breeding cobras just to collect the bounty, leading the government to scrap the program and causing the cobra breeders to set their now worthless snakes free.
As we’ve often said before, the long, more thoughtful route is at times frustrating and painful. At the very least, you create something that’s battle tested and can stand up to rigorous (self-)analysis.