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The fallacy of being first

The fallacy of being first.

We have all heard it. “Nobody remembers who came second”.

Ever heard of Elisha Gray? He filed a patent for the telephone on the same morning as Alexander Graham Bell, but Bell beat him by a few hours.

Many people would know that Michael Phelps has won more Olympic medals than anyone else in modern history. But very few would have heard of Larisa Latynina from the Soviet Union – even though she is the second most prolific medal winner (18 to Phelps’ 22).

The Netherlands have come second in the FIFA world cup three times… but you don’t think of them as a world cup superpower… because they have never won it.

But applying this truism to business is a fallacy. Being first is not critical. In fact, it is not necessary at all. Business history is full of market leaders who in the end, lost. It is full of late entrants who killed those who were first.

Common wisdom was that Google would fail. Even Paul Buchheit (inventor of Gmail, “Don’t be evil” and AdSense) said upon joining Google from Intel “Honestly, I was pretty sure AltaVista was going to destroy Google”. Yahoo and Altavista were the giants of search. The market had matured.

Youtube weren’t the first video sharing website. Facebook wasn’t the first social networking website. iPod wasn’t the first hard drive music player (believe me, I know – I was responsible for the Walkman category in the UK when iPod launched).

Just because someone is already leading in a market doesn’t mean they always will. Being “first” in a market is only a triumph of today.

Tomorrow, the race starts again.