Stealing Ideas Is Entrepreneurial Art

There’s a myth in business that the “first mover” in a new product category always has the advantage. While being first has its advantages, the myth isn’t always true–and here are some counter-examples:

  • Google came along and took over the search engine industry that had been dominated for years by players like Yahoo and Altavista. Anyone even remember Altavista?
  • Microsoft moved into the personal computer industry after Apple was already seeing success. After Apple then introduced the Mac, Microsoft came out with Windows to compete. And who got the most market share?
  • Internet Explorer went from obscure web browser in the age of Netscape to the dominant browser.
  • Facebook was relatively unknown at the height of Myspace’s success–and then went ahead and killed it.
  • Gas Stations, Restaurants and Coffee Shops tend to cluster around each other. Ever wonder why they’d want to be second to arrive at the intersection? Because there’s already a traffic of qualified sales leads who want the product. The first to arrive has already had to generate traffic. It reduces the marketing from “find people who want this product” to “convince them that we’re the best.”

The reality is that first movers have the advantage of momentum and mind share, but only if they keep getting it right or at least consistently improving. The advantage of being the second company on the scene is that you can look at all the mistakes that the competition has commited to, as well as all of the great ideas the first mover has invested in, and come out with something that learns from those lessons, while saving the costs that go into making those mistakes in the first place.

Stealing Ideas: Mistakes, Too

So stealing ideas isn’t just about using great ideas pioneered by other companies. It’s also about being willing to learn from their mistakes. Knowing the difference is part of the art.

Not New, Just Improved

Most of the best ideas are really just mashups of previous ideas. So look for people and companies who have great ideas, figure out what really works and why, and do a better job. Most importantly, don’t be shy about copying a good idea–within legal bounds of course. And remember, it’s a two-step process: first you take inspiration from a great idea, then you improve on the idea.

Speaking of stealing ideas, here’s where I got the inspiration for this post: How to Steal Like an Artist.