Once in a while, we hear stories about how a university dropout launched a bizarre-sounding start-up and became a cultural hero. Hundreds of self-help books urge us to be bold and “different”, while business motivational speakers never stop telling us that an idea should be nothing less than revolutionary. To live by such “originality” standards can be incredibly stressful.
The truth is, you do not need to be a pioneer or a first achiever to be extraordinary. Both first movers and followers have distinct advantages and challenges. Let’s understand this using commercial examples we are most familiar with: Apple vs Samsung.
When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it redefined the way the world interacted with smartphones. Apple introduced the first touchscreen mobile phone when everyone was using the physical QWERTY keyboards, concluding the fate of Blackberry—a dominant player in the smartphone category before Apple came along. Not just that, Apple excelled by placing its products in an entire network of connected offerings, making it a pain for consumers to change once invested in the ecosystem. Whilst Apple bagged the first-mover advantage, it also gained a worthy rival—Samsung.
Samsung is the classic astute fast follower. It may be a late mover in the smartphone space, but it is a successful one. The tech company launched its first Android phone, the Galaxy S, in 2010, which sported a look and feel that closely resembled the iPhone. Samsung started to gain market share with its Galaxy line-up, hurting Apple’s margins and stock price. The battle between the giants began. Since then, every time Apple launches a new product, Samsung brings out its own version a year or so later.
Samsung may have copied, but it always puts a unique enhancement on its products. For example, Samsung created a space within the larger screen segment, something Apple avoided for years. It also competed with smartphone manufacturers in the megapixel race to deliver better camera capabilities on its phones. Samsung’s greatest strength is its ability to attune to where the world is heading in terms of demand and growth. It observes as others gain traction, then rapidly jumps in with a better product than the original offering.
Wins & Drawbacks of First Movers
Pioneers set the standards and trends. Being the first to connect with consumers and make a strong impression, they can shape consumer tastes and preferences, establish brand recognition, and build brand loyalty, instituting an irreplaceable legacy that can span decades.
But there are the pitfalls of being the first. The risk of blazing a new trail is a gamble. Pioneering can be expensive, with a massive responsibility in creating both the product category and demand in the market. With no footsteps to follow, first movers may need to learn the hard way, and there is also no guarantee of enduring success. In an evolving world with technological changes, first movers can easily fall behind. Often, they are the common enemy of competitors, with everyone strategising to take them down.
Pros & Cons of Late Entrants
On the other hand, succeeding movers have the advantage of riding on the achievements of pioneers, imitating technical knowledge, expertise, and strategies, learning from the mistakes of their predecessors, and introducing improvements or additional features. Entering a marketplace that has already been researched and educated also saves a lot of resources. For every successful first mover, there will always be a second mover chasing them closely behind and keeping them on their toes, threatening to displace them. Like how Facebook eventually prevailed over Friendster, and Yahoo lost out to Google.
Of course, there are the late mover disadvantages. Like the pioneers, late entrants must evolve and adapt, even having to innovate at some point. Latecomers need to find ways to break through the unwavering first-mover loyalty and convert customers to their side. As pioneer-dominated markets can have high entry barriers, succeeding movers may need to be proactive in finding untapped markets to lead in that space.
Blurring The Lines
Before we draw the lines and categorise Apple as solely a first mover, there are many aspects where Apple was a follower or a succeeding mover. The most obvious case in point is the iPod. When Apple launched the iPod in 2001, there were already mp3 players in the market. But Apple saw the potential of connecting the audio player to the Mac, relaunching the market on its own terms.
In the case of the smartwatch concept, Apple also took a fast follower approach. They allowed Samsung to take the first shot with its Galaxy Gear launch in 2013. When the Apple Watch was finally unveiled in 2015, it revolutionised the smartwatch market. Fast forward to today, Apple goes on to hold the largest share of the global smartwatch shipment market. Meanwhile, Samsung continues to evolve and stay in the race.
Finally, with Google Wallet being around since 2011, Apple Pay may not be all that new. But it introduces a “cool” factor by allowing users to virtualise their credit card in their iPhones at selected merchants and pay for purchases by just waving the iPhone or Apple Watch to the payment terminal.
So, who says you cannot be a leader and a follower at the same time? Pick your own battles.
Are you an Apple or a Samsung? In the brutal war for dominance in the tech marketplace, we have learnt that we can be both the first mover and the late entrant and still be worthy players in the game. There is sure glory in being first. But there is also beauty in riding the coattails of those who lead the way. As such, there is no shame in being seen as following someone else’s footsteps.
Learn to look in the right places and be creative by looking into blind spots. You do not always have to find a new problem to solve. Taking the time to look at existing problems with fresh eyes and providing an enhanced solution can lead to astounding results.
Keep this in mind in your academic and professional pursuit. Beating everyone to the punch does not necessarily earn you the title of a long-term champion. Instead, be curious and open-minded. Experiment and play; maintain a varied range of perspectives so that you can readily rotate through them and find an optimal solution to any problem any time. The goal is to learn more and stay in the game. Learn who has done what, their successes and failures. Ask yourself: What can you learn from them? How can you capitalise on their mistakes? What can you improve? And once you have an idea, do not be afraid to explore it.
In fact, the Helsinki Bus Station theory suggests that plodding down a well-beaten path and staying on it (the bus), even if it is to imitate what others have done, can help you get to a new point on the line in time, a destination unexplored by others, a piece of work you can call your own.
But there is a word of caution. Whilst you take your time to learn, do not wait forever. There is an emphasis on “fast” in being a follower. Even while waiting to see how things go for the ones leading the way, you should continue to work on something.
Do not worry about not being first or original. We are all unique. Just be yourself, follow the path that is right for you. If you do the right things, eventually, the right things will happen for you. Early or late, first or second, movers or adopters, leaders or followers, we are all worthy of success.