They tell us that we should strive to be always first. I believe that this misconception we absorb from the school (a school is supposed to be a competitive environment), from mass media (they generously regale us with business success stories “when somebody got ahead of time etc.”), from books (mythology is sold way better than bare true) and so on. But being first and getting ahead of time in many cases gives you nothing. Why? I will try to answer this question in this article.
Example 1. Palm PDAs rest in peace, whilst Android tablets and iPads flourish. You remember those devices from 1996. In fact they were “granddads” of modern tablets. What went wrong? Below we will discuss why it is a good example when the second mouse gets the cheese from a mouse trap…
Example 2. PayPal. Before PayPal there was no such internet payment processing systems. Inventors of PayPal demonstrated that even the first mouse can successfully get ALL THE CHEESE.
A parachute lesson
To answer what is the difference between Example 1 and Example 2, lets refer to a parachute. Leonardo da Vinci allegedly conceived the parachute idea in 1492 (a sketch along with the description was found in his records). S0, a parachute invention is a perfect example of getting ahead of time.
What is perfect for a scientists, can be very detrimental for entrepreneurs. Let’s imagine what would happen if he tried to invent the first practical parachute in 1492. He would face at least two problems.
Problem #1 (minor one): highly likely he would have a hard time finding appropriate materials to even create a proof of concept. I’m not even sure that the physics at that time was able to make appropriate calculations. This is a minor flip side of being too much ahead of time: the technologies of his time would not allow him to even build a decent proof o concept.
Problem #2 (major one): Сui prodest? Who needs a parachute in 1492, when people ride horses, inner combustion engines do not exist and you need to wait at least 4 centuries before Wright brothers’ invention of an airplane? It is major problem of being too much ahead of time: you either have to bury your invention or you have to speed-up the mankind in order to develop such behavioral patterns so that your invention becomes practically needed.
Both these problems combined compose what I would call “a dreadful curse of being too much ahead of time”.
Timing is the key
From the example above we can see that we get too much ahead of time, we will have to develop people’s habits. They must already have appropriate behavioral patterns, so our product or service can help them. Many entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and motivational speakers say that you should find the niche for your startup where nobody is presented, so you don’t have any competitors. Sounds promising. What they forget to mention is that you will have to create the market in that niche, not just promote your product.
And timing here is the key: being too much ahead of time means too much efforts and resources to develop the market. Ideally, you want to be that much ahead, so you can already create your product and the whole infrastructure, but then right away harness natural demand, rather than creating it at your own expenses.
Back to PayPal. Yes, they created something what never existed. But it wasn’t something like a parachute in 15th century: payments through email already existed and were pain in the ass. So, PayPal took an already existing situation and made it way better. That was their key difference from Palm PDAs.
You don’t want to be just first. You must be in time: you don’t want to outrun your time significantly. And wow is you if you get too much ahead!