Fighting the fast followers

You’ll have surely heard that tired cliche “The early bird gets the worm”. But you may not have heard a related expression: “The second mouse gets the cheese”


The world of business is full of juicy examples of companies that went out to market with a fantastic product, put effort into building awareness and interest, poured their hearts and souls into getting customers to understand the product and make the decision to buy it…. Only to see their product falter and watch as a rival swoops in with a similar proposition and reap the rewards.

These propositions are often very similar in terms of core functionality leaving the innovative pioneer to grumble and complain about the unscrupulous rival that ‘stole’ their idea, avoided the R&D cost, benefited from all the innovator’s hard work and realised the opportunity.

Example: The Apple Newton

With all the hype surrounding Apple’s recent successful product launches, it’s worth reflecting back to 1993 when another handheld device was launched. CEO at the time, John Sculley actually coined the term “Personal Digital Assistant” when describing the Apple Newton. This device introduced many useful features seen on PDAs and Smartphones today: calendar and diary, note keeping, calculator, “lite” office applications and touch screen functionality.


But the Newton had problems: it was big, heavy and expensive. Core functionality didn’t work that well, it had poor battery life and connectivity with other devices (such as Apple computers) were also lacklustre. It’s marketing positioning was also confusing – was it a computer? Something else? Remember, this was well before mobile phones had gone mainstream. Even email and internet use were still limited to the more technically adept members of society.

Rival products soon appeared such as the Palm Pilot from Palm Computing and in time, Smartphones from Nokia and other leading manufacturers. Focusing on user needs rather than features and functionalities, their products were well received by increasing segments of customers. After a few years of dismal sales, significant mockery and criticism the Newton was withdrawn. The innovative product failed where its fast follower rivals stepped in, improved upon the concept and made devices that were faster, lighter, easier to use, more integrated with other services and positioned and marketed more appropriately.

Implications for product managers

How can product managers ensure that their innovative new products and services don’t end up being the next Newton? How can the significant time, resource and money invested provide a return? And how can product managers prevent rivals from coming along and ‘stealing’ your idea?

  • Remember to solve the problem: The core of successful product management is to design products and services that solve customer problems. Understanding these problems and their impacts on customers should be the foundation for prioritising your product development. When working on features and functionality, always focus on how these will help solve the customer problems. Try to resist the urge to throw in an extra feature or ramp something up for the sake of it.
  • Add value in many places: Look beyond the core functionality of your product to consider the full value proposition. How will customers buy your product? What will the payment terms be? How will they go about using it? How can the way in which the product is built be improved? How can your suppliers, partners and vendors help you to make a better experience for your customers?
  • Product manage it like you own it: Whilst the above points deal with the “head” of product management, we think it’s equally important that product managers put their “heart” into it too. When launching a new product, particularly one that is the first to market, it’s essential that yours is recognised and understood by customers. They should get a sense of your commitment and desire to help them through this shiny new product of yours. It’s not necessarily important to be the first to market – although this allows for great positioning and messaging. What’s more important is that your product is the best for the market. At a practical level, make sure you also investigate legal means for protection – such as patents – and snap up relevant URLs, social networking sites and so on.
  • Keep your eye on the ball: Now that you’ve launched your product and shown its potential, your hungry competitors will most certainly have bought it and be tearing it apart – seeing how it works, judging what it does well, what it does badly and what customers and the market at large are saying about it. Watch them. Keep an eye on their products and tie this back to your common customers – which product is best for them? Speak to your customers and find out what they think. If you see a divergence in how your product works compared to others, or customer needs grow and evolve make sure you keep on top of these and adapt and change as necessary.

Following these principles ensures that you maintain focus on solving your customer’s problem which is the best way to ensure your product is successful at launch – and staves off the fast followers.

Have you experienced cases of a fast follower stepping on your turf? What are some strategies and tactics that you would recommend to combat this threat?

Do you have any favourite examples or cases of fast followers that you’d like to share?

Product Management Training