When studying strategy, we often learn about the concept of core advantages – those traits a business has that protect it from competition. One such trait, which is only temporary, is called “first-mover advantage.” Because a business is the very first to do something, it has an opportunity, if it moves quickly, to lock in a loyal customer base and corner the market.
In truth, there are tremendous disadvantages to being the first, or even the second to enter a business. Look at social media. How many of you go to visit your Friendster account to see how it’s doing? Have you “outgrown” myspace? Facebook studied the mistakes of its competitors, and it was like a free laboratory for them to develop something better.
In my own life, I had an experience of benefiting from the mistakes my early adopter friends made. For over a year, I have wanted a “Magic Mesh” screen door as seen on TV. We need ventilation in the house, but living where I do, there are wasps, flies, mosquitoes, june bugs, crickets and other critters that treat an open door as an invitation to join my family. We also have a dog, Miss Patsy, who would be flummoxed by a built-in screen door.
A good friend of mine is the first to buy something in every instance. He had a magic mesh as soon as it was available in stores. I went to visit his house, and when I experienced the “magic” of the magnets, I was hooked. But he said to me “This sucks. It keeps falling down, and I had to nail it in place.” I was so disappointed.
I visited another friend who had two of them in boxes, waiting to return them to the store. “They don’t work, they fall down – the velcro is no good.” But I wanted a “Magic Mesh” so badly, and the magnets were really, really great. They completely solved a problem that nothing else out there could solve.
This week, I was shopping at Target, and I saw the magic mesh in the TV Only section of the store. I sighed and picked it up. Immediately, I noticed two things.
First, the box said “New and Improved.” Second, the price had dropped from 19.95 to 14.95. Knowing all that I did, and feeling completely forewarned yet forearmed, I bought the magical screen door and brought it home.
Today, I opened the box and read the instructions VERY CAREFULLY. There was a lot of verbiage about how to ensure your Magic Mesh stays in place. There were three steps that I know my other friends probably did not take, because they probably weren’t in the set of instructions they got.
1. It told me to find the center of the door and mark it. I finally got to use my “center-finding” yardstick that ended up in my tool collection from parts unknown.
2. It said, in bold print, that you must hold each piece of sticky velcro pressed against the door frame for 30 seconds before letting go. I did that.
3. Lastly, it now comes with a little box of matching decorative tacks. It showed where to place each, and stressed that they must be nailed into the door frame, not the wall next to the door frame.
So far, so good. The dog figured out instantly how to use the screen door, and we will have a cool breeze blowing through the house tonight, if the weather cooperates.
Even before I discovered the “improvements” – I had vowed to further leverage this great piece of genius with my staple gun – so if the “new and improved” model still turns out to have issues staying in place, I will simply staple gun it until it can’t come down.
I watched others struggle and fail before moving in to use what I know is a fundamentally great product. Businesses need to remember this when their research budgets are cut – it’s cheaper to study a competitor or make use of existing technologies to gain advantage than it is to develop something completely brand new.
That’s not to say that creativity is a waste of time – it isn’t. But you can be just as creative improving something as you are when inventing it from scratch.