The concept of the first mover can often be held up as the single biggest thing in innovation. To have started off something genuinely new is to gain plenty of plaudits and, if it is a popular idea, to enjoy a complete monopoly on a totally new market for a product or service nobody else offers.
All this is what is known as first mover advantage. In addition to the initial monopoly, the originality of a firm’s idea can afford further benefits even when others seek to emulate the idea, not least the fact that a loyal customer base can be established that may prove hard for competitors to prise away.
Other benefits include setting the industry standard and establishing some advantages that others cannot take away, such as setting up in a prime geographic location, hiring the best-skilled staff or getting the best contract with suppliers.
All this might make it sound like being the first mover confers such an advantage that the rest will be playing catch up for a long time and regretting that they were not the ones to come up with that big new idea before anyone else.
However, this is to ignore the fact that there are also potential disadvantages for a first mover. If you are not the first mover but plan to thrive in a particular market, the key is to note what chances you have to overtake that first mover. You should devise an innovation strategy that can make the most of the opportunities that arise.
An obvious issue for many is the fact that first movers will usually make some mistakes along the way, which you could observe and then learn from. The first mover will be associated with the mistake, which may undermine the reputational benefit of being a first mover, whereas you will not be.
Also, a first mover may have incurred a large expense on product development that you won’t have to do, while any work they have done in educating consumers about the product will mean there will be a more informed demographic of potential customers out there as a result of someone else’s work.
Most importantly, there may be improvements that can obviously be made to the original product or service, which you could be the ones to make.
All this requires an innovation strategy that moves fast. If another firm starts to offer something new in your line of business, you must be able to analyse the idea, see if and how it is successful and identify areas where it can be improved upon.
There are many cases of successful firms that were not first movers, but saw ways to expand and improve on a new idea. For instance, Google was not the first provider of search engines, but developed the service to a higher level than its predecessors to come to dominate the market.
All this goes to show that having a great idea may bring some advantages, but it does not guarantee lasting market dominance. The right approach to innovation can help you take advantage of the fact that this applies to rivals whose ideas you may improve upon.