At what cost can the early bird catcheth the worm?

Nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language, and the element of language that best encapsulates a society’s values and beliefs is its proverbs.

It’s interesting to note that the two most common words in English proverbs are ‘good’ and ‘never’.

Proverbs are short and pithy sayings that express some traditionally held truth. They are usually metaphorical and often, for the sake of memorability, alliterative. And, as so many proverbs offer advice and uplift, many of them are religious in origin. Here’s an additional list of biblical proverbs.

I was recently examining the proverb “The early bird catcheth the worm.” the saying is found in John Ray’s “A Collection of English Proverbs” published in 1670.

Are you an early bird?

The common phrase “the early bird gets the worm” is normally given as counsel to be early or prompt. In entrepreneurial and business circles, it’s also a reminder that the first business to enter the market with a given idea has a big advantage.
That advantage is so powerful that, of the handful of classic entrepreneurial strategies that work, being the first to market is the first one that many of us think of. You can not just be the first, though; you have to be the first with the most or, as Peter Drucker would say it, “the Fustest With the Mostest.”

However, being the first business to market is as perilous as it is popular. All too often, the company that actually prospers is not the one that is first to market but the one that truly works the opportunities created in the new market. Thus, a second winning strategy: being the second business with the capability to coax the opportunities that the first business cannot or will not provide.

As with any strategic decision, there are advantages and disadvantages to either route.

The main idea in being there first with the most is that you go first with the idea, lead with it, and put as many resources as you can into both innovating and delivering whatever it is and dominating market share.

Some of the early bird advantages:
1. There are no competitors to contend with.
You get to both define and play the game all by yourself, which is a supreme advantage. Prospects are not vetting your value proposition against any other competitor on the same dimensions, so it’s a lot easier to come up with a compelling unique value proposition.
2. The innovative edge is inherently motivating.
Doing something that no one else is doing or has done before taps into a core drive for many people. As much as innovators and engineers love to solve problems, they get really fired up to solve new problems.
3. You have the market lead once competitors do enter.
New entrants have to play the game on your turf, and we all know that the home team has the advantage. Rolling out with something new is far more compelling than being the new people rolling out something that used to be new.

Some of the disadvantages of being the early bird:
1. Novelty can be hard to sell.
Novelty is a bit of a double-edged sword; as Geoffrey Moore illustrated brilliantly in Crossing the Chasm, broad segments of the market have a bias against novelty and are waiting for the innovation to be tested. They don’t want to waste their money and time on something that may not work.
2. Most people resist change.
If you are coming up with something new, you have to advance why this new thing is a better solution than currently available (and tested) solutions. Remember, better trumps new every time – though clever marketing can alter the dimensions of better.
3. Being the early bird is expensive.
You bear the learning curve in both the development of the idea and the best ways to get it to market. You bear the infrastructure setup costs. And your marketing team has to work harder to shift values and build trust.
4. You are the new kid on the block that opens new ground.
This disadvantage is more than a summary of the first three – it points to the fact that you create the very conditions for other ventures to beat you.
5. Most entrepreneurs cannot stick the landing.
They cannot complete the idea, because of execution. They generally have difficulties doing the hard work of the follow-through. They cannot market and position the product in the best ways since they are too busy developing it.

Whether an advantage or disadvantage from being an early bird, you need to learn from each mistake. The challenges of business in the past decade has been so daunting for some, that many of organisations have fallen into the precipice and have lost the battle and closed their doors. Many others are living dangerously and close to the edge. There is many lessons from the mistakes those adversities can teach us and more.

It is a fact that for whatever reason, on whatever level, there are leaders who make on occasions bad or wrong choices in response to the onslaught of bad news; leaders unable to weather the storms and sail its leadership team and company into better waters. It may not have been completely their fault, and this is not meant to criticise anyone, but certainly some of the blame can accurately be placed at their failure of business/commercial acumen, knowledge and leadership.

Management need to observe at what decisions were made, and when, that contributed to the failure, and what were, in the final analysis, the real risks that were taken that proved too much.

Understanding that you can eliminate future risk, and the risks through shared planning and managed execution.

Finally, certainly we can learn from our successes, but it is more likely people learn as much, if not more, from their failures through adversity. And the need to increase learning from past mistakes include the compliance and regulation challenges on management and board agendas.

Steven Wright once said:

“A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking”

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