Every great business begins in the same place: nowhere. There is never anything more than the sketch of an idea, a vision for what might be. It doesn’t matter whether it’s laid out in a blueprint, scribbled on a cocktail napkin, or, in some cases, inspired by a competitor. Sparked by sudden insight or developed through years of research, a new business idea is just an objective, an X on the map. You still have to fight to capture that piece of ground—and win. The war begins when an entrepreneur takes the seed of an idea and makes it a reality. In the marketplace, no ground is ever surrendered willingly. No matter how remarkable the innovation, a business can never triumph without toppling the status quo—and those competitors perched comfortably on top of it.
The struggle to break through with the new is, in fact, nothing new. Even coffee, that life-giving elixir, had a rough introduction. When the Venetian botanist Prospero Alpini introduced the use of coffee to Europe from Egypt, the Vatican advocated against its infernal influence. That is, until Pope Clement VIII tried the foreign brew, loved it, and gave coffee his blessing. (In the end, the Italians turned out to be pretty big fans.)
If you have a wild idea and a burning desire to make it a reality, never expect a warm welcome. Change of any kind threatens the establishment, and the greater the change, the greater the resistance. So think ahead: Who are the key players? Who stands to lose if you gain? The impact of a new product can be hard to predict. It can lead to unexpected, far-reaching consequences. Before you take a single step, map the battlefield thoroughly. Make sure you really understand the size of the fight you’re about to start.
In business, slow and steady won’t win the race. The marketplace rewards boldness and aggression. Many of the car manufacturers that dominated the twentieth century were founded by the automobile’s earliest innovators, like Ford, Ransom Olds, and the Dodge brothers. They got in fast and held on tight. When Ruth Handler saw Lilli in that Swiss store window, she didn’t hesitate to stuff three dolls in her luggage. Hastings and Randolph got Netflix off the ground within months of conceiving and testing the idea behind it. But a company can’t be bold—only a leader can. Leaders are the ones who spot opportunities, conceive of audacious strategies, and rally others to the fight.
The idea of a “first-mover advantage” is simple: a company can capture an insurmountable lead by offering something new and valuable first. When you’re first, your brand becomes synonymous with the product. You can even lock customers in by making it hard to switch to alternatives as they become available.
The promise of the first-mover advantage is certainly appealing, but it comes with major risks. Many companies rush their product to market in the hopes of achieving a knockout blow only to learn—the hard way—that it isn’t ready yet.