I like to think of this blog as balancing between business school theory and startup execution. While there are many places they don’t add up, usually the combination of the two provides an insightful truth that is hard to see without the theory plus the experience of trying to implement it. One area where I struggled for a while between my experience and the theory was the first mover disadvantage as it relates to barriers to entry.
The first mover disadvantage states that, while being the first firm in a market to do something has its advantages in terms of brand recognition and speed to market, the firm bares an even greater cost of R&D, education, etc. that second movers do not. These second movers can fast follow without all of these additional costs the first mover had to deal with and quickly compete. See HBR for details. In my Chicago Booth studies, both Eric Lefkofsky (CEO of Groupon who taught Building Internet Startups) and up and coming economist Matthew Gentzkow (who taught Competitive Strategy) argued about how potent the first mover disadvantage would be for Groupon, and that now that everyone knew how profitable the Groupon model was, it would be copied as there was no competitive advantage.
In a case study about Groupon in Gentzkow’s class, I did a one man filibuster against this argument. I looked at the data. During the time of the class, Facebook and OpenTable were winding down their Groupon clones, Yelp called theirs “not a priority” six months after shifting almost their entire team to work on it. Living Social started having financial issues. Groupon was winning despite the first mover disadvantage. The question was not would Groupon win, it what the prize was going to be for being first. Why was that the case when economics would argue against it?
I saw this same phenomenon in my own work at GrubHub. Online ordering was not a hard technology to clone, and once we had educated restaurants on the value of online ordering and shown them the additional business we could bring them, a competitor would have a much easier time with their pitch. Yet, we were still winning in every market except New York and college towns, where competitors had entered well before us. After acquiring those competitors, we talked candidly about competing with each other. The folks at Seamless (the New York competitor) talked repeatedly about feeling boxed out due to GrubHub’s first mover advantage in the rest of the country, even though we weren’t first in many of those areas.
Having taken two classes emphasizing first mover disadvantage before hearing this, I knew something wasn’t right, but couldn’t quite nail the hidden truth. Last year, I read Andy Rachleff’s post on first to product market fit. Andy argued it’s not about first mover advantage, it’s about first to product-market fit. It felt warmer, but not quite right either. GrubHub was not first to product-market fit in many of the markets it entered and later dominated.
If we tweak Andy’s definition slightly from fit to scale, the model fits better. One thing about GrubHub is that everything we thought about we thought about at scale and with velocity. We would systematically try to grow every market we entered with the same focus and the same process. If we achieved this, we would overtake successful players that were already in the market. It also didn’t matter who entered the market and tried the same after that. We had already won. Product-market fit implies a product that works with a small product, and the next step in the company’s evolution should be scale. So, the target for startups or large firms entering new markets in order to be successful should not just be product-market fit, but product-market scale. If you achieve that, you dominate markets and cannot seem to be usurped no matter how few barriers to entry you have.