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It Doesn’t Alway Pay to Be Ahead of the Pack

Recently I had a conversation with the CEO of an ad tech startup that’s finally starting to gain real traction, despite the fact that his potential customers don’t “get” the technology. The revolutionary tech his team has developed, he lamented, is so good that it’s far beyond any of the current tools used in the ad industry.

And thus, beyond comprehension. The people who do see the future frankly admit that they’re surrounded by lemmings who’d rather be wrong than break from the herd. Instead, the traditional ad industry continues to use ancient services they know don’t accurately measure today’s new channels and viewers. At least until the herd changes direction.

I have had versions of this same, slightly whiney conversation nearly every month with some sadly underappreciated entrepreneurs. And even more frequently with folks trying to sell their dazzling technology into the Fortune 500. I don’t waste my breath explaining to them that the elephants and dinosaurs in any industry take years longer than the smaller, more agile companies in the same space to accept the necessity of, and the associated costs and risks of, any material changes in their businesses.

Success, in fact, is the greatest impediment to change. Big firms that are doing well are firm believers in the idea that what’s worked for them in the past will get the job done in the future. The very last thing they want to think about is rocking the boat, retraining their troops, making costly mistakes, or being the one shiny nail that’s sticking up and likely to get hammered by the higher-ups.

We all know that this “head in the sand” strategy has ceased to be smart or effective and that with the accelerating rate of technological change you either move quickly to adapt to the new competitive environment or you eventually die.  But what seems obvious to us, and to every startup CEO, isn’t something most senior executives and managers in large enterprises want to hear. They’re all for tradition and the way things have always been done and the only way they’ll move is when the heat gets too hot to stand still any longer.

So what I told my guy instead — apart from the usual lecture on patience and perseverance — is that, especially with new technologies, being too soon is just as bad as being  too late.  Actually, being early is probably worse. He’s definitely early and planning to upset the whole industry’s applecart and, when it comes to a sincere interest in new technologies, I warned him that the ad biz finishes just a hair ahead of the Luddites. So, he’s got his work cut out for him.

I reminded him that the second mouse to the mousetrap is usually the one that gets to eat the cheese and that being first is always the toughest and riskiest task. Many readers are probably too young to remember how Betamax should have creamed VHS as the video tape standard except that it didn’t because Betamax was too early and unsupported by too many of the other critical players/manufacturers at the time. Remember, too, that Apple was late to the mobile phone party–seems to have worked out for them. Consider that if you’re the one who’s late to the game, at least someone else has laid the track, started to educate the market, and taken most of the arrows in the back that are part of being a pioneer. You get to run up their backs, copy their best features, and learn from all of their mistakes.

Your biggest risk in not being a first mover is often that a lot of the low-hanging opportunities may already be gone, some of the earlier players and pilot programs may have failed (“too good to be true”) and poisoned the well, and, of course, you’ll look like a “me-too” copycat rather than an innovative new solution.

But if you’re a first mover who moves too soon, the obstacles are even more abundant. And, if you really want to succeed, you’ve got to change your approach, deal with your prospects’ real fears and concerns, and recognize that what you’re selling isn’t necessarily as important as what they’re willing to buy.

Young entrepreneurs fall in love with their products’ bells and whistles and don’t realize that they actually need to be selling comfort, stability and “feelings” rather than facts and features. It’s never about what your service can do, it’s always about what your service can do for them. You need to aim your presentation directly at the pain points of the purchaser. And you need to avoid like the plague all those weighted and newfangled terms that sound to these folks just like chalk scrapping on the blackboard.

Here’s a few quick hints on the changes you’ll need to make.

1.     Originality is overrated. Originality means untested and unproven. Originality means new learning curves, lots of trial and error, and plenty of mistakes and mishaps along the way. Buyers are all about tried and true – that trumps everything else. The approach needs to be incremental – slow, sure and careful steps forward. Building off a solid foundation they already have in place.

2.     No one wants to be the first to cross the chasm.  These folks aren’t entrepreneurs and pioneers, they’re not change agents or risk takers, and the only thing they fear more than making a mistake is being alone when they do. They want company, comfort and companions on the journey and someone else to take the first leap– and also the hit if things go wrong.

3.     Analogies and examples are better than apple pie.  Show me what I’m already doing and how you’ll make things easier for me; not how things will change, but how much things will be the same, only better. Show me how other businesses are already successfully using the tools.  You don’t want to be new or different, just easier, faster and more effective.

4.     Go for FOMO (fear of missing out) and the bandwagon. They don’t want to be the first for sure, but they are just as scared about being last. In this rat race, no one is going to be waiting for them to get their act together if they choose to sit on the sidelines. Clients are constantly looking for a competitive edge and they’re happy to jump ship if they believe they can find it elsewhere. You don’t want to be left behind when all your competitors are on the bandwagon.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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