Is being first really important?

Posted: 12.17.07

This isn't the first—this is the last back page I'll write this year, unless I decide to write one more. But is being first really so important? Well, if you're really first, that is, if you actually have product you can ship, then yes, it is important because you set the bar for the competitors and position them in your market.

OK then, that seems simple, all we have to do is be first.

But what if you can't actually be first in shipments? Well, then you become what is called a thought leader.

A thought leader is basically a flimflam man, a con artist, a liar. A thought leader is a paper tiger who has good ideas and no execution. Those good ideas are expressed as early announcement, technology announcements, preliminary roadmaps, or sneak peaks. They are as, or maybe more, entertaining than a carny show, and about as realistic because by the time they become reality they are usually quite different. The car companies have done this for years and at the car shows have “Concept cars.” These are cars you will never get to drive or see.

Figure 1: Concept racing car. (Courtesy of Mercedes Benz)

Being first, or trying to be first creates such stress. On one side, you don't want the competition to beat you, but on the other, you don't want to pre-announce too far in advance for fear of sending the consumers to the store and having them buy something else because you aren't there. Then there's the stress of investors, analysts, and the press clamoring for a peak at what's coming so they can satisfy their needs to be first.

I'm in the process of writing about the first 3D events. You may have seen the poster I did that Nvidia produced (and you can get a copy at the Computer Museum.) You'd be amazed at how hard it is to find the actual first. Is it the first to publish, the first to test, the first to build it, the first to sell it, etc.

And even if you are the first to ship, you may not get noticed if you weren't the first to announce. You might get labeled a follower.

So we now have this mad race to be the first to announce and hopefully then ship. And if you miss, then there's a race between the press and the financial analysts to be the first to criticize and demean you (You were all such good friends at the press announcement when you were giving out gifts, samples, and feeding them, weren't you?)

The other down side of being first to announce, especially if you can't actually deliver on your promises, is that you tip off the competition, Then, if they are a little better than you at execution, they will up the ante and come out with effectively rev 2 of the first you announced but couldn't build—that has to be the worst of all worlds.

So being first is risky business. Being first, with version 1, means all your customers are unwitting beta testers. And guess what, they're going to find the flaws, identify the features promised but not delivered, and if you piss enough of them off they're going to hire a class-action lawyer to wreck your bottom line.

So I think we should all take moment and congratulate whoever you can think of that was first to announce, then ship, and deliver what was promised—that's a truly a first-class accomplishment.