“I could have built that in 2 weeks!”

Yes but did you? That’s the point. You’ll often hear an over zealous programmer or engineer exclaim that they could have built [insert hot startup] in no time so what was the fuss about?

The key that they’re missing out on is that it’s simple to clone, but extremely difficult to innovate.

It’s a decision tree. Every node represents a set of decisions available to you with all the possible permutations as below.

decision tree

What is visible to everyone is the path travelled, not the paths forgone. Once you know your destination, tracing the tree back to the root is relatively simple. However, starting from the root without knowledge of your destination is where true innovation happens. That is a process filled with trial, error, failure, and course-correction over and over again till you reach your final destination.

Conceptually speaking there are several startups that are in the same space – most fail but some do better than others, with one becoming a market leader. Path, Instagram, Oink, etc are all relatively similar, but you’ve heard of some and not the others. Why? They’ve all taken different paths in the tree which has enabled some greater success than the others.

First mover advantage is real. Reaching first on the scene with a product that scales gives you a distinct advantage to becoming the market leader no matter who you’re competing against. Take the case for Facebook, a company with near infinite resources and the top destination for the web. They were late to the ephemeral photo space behind Snapchat. Facebook released a Snapchat clone called Slingshot in an attempt to beat them. Despite Facebook’s resources behind Slingshot, which one do you have on your phone? They also released a Flipboard clone with Facebook News (yes they had/have a separate news app), an Instagram clone with Facebook Camera (before acquiring the former), and a Foursquare clone with Facebook places (now defunct) amongst others. They failed in every one of those cases for the exact same reason that they succeeded in out-competing Google+: they were there first.

Switching costs in networks ensure that network effects are always in play. If a user is on a hot app with his friends, he’s not going to switch to a clone that does the same thing and also convince his friends to switch, even if the second one is slightly better. The only way to convince the user to overcome the switching cost is to offer something that is 10x or an  order of magnitude better than what he is using.

Success always looks easy from a distance. That’s because it’s only the path travelled that is visible, not the entirety of the tree. The next time someone says “I could have built that in 2 weeks” simply ask “then why didn’t you get there first?”.

 

 

 

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