I’ve been thinking a lot this week about firsts. Our first employee was Jason Butler, my co-founder, who stopped working on his own startup full-time to come help me. WeSpire’s first investor was founding partner Sarah Finnie Robinson, followed shortly by Stephen McDonnell, the founder of Applegate Farms. Our first software customer was, quite shockingly, NBC Universal, thanks to a very brave executive named Beth Colleton and her right hand, Maggie Dukes Kendall.
Whenever you are trying to do something new, you need people willing to be the first. And despite all the rhetoric you hear in business about “first mover advantage”, I’ve observed two things as an entrepreneur. First, many, many people hate being first. Probably the most common question I hear in sales is “who else uses this”. That’s less of an issue now, but it was one of the hardest questions in the early days. I learned there are buyers that are comfortable as long as there are a few others, but most buyers seek comfort in numbers. Even if the product is inferior, if a competitor is bigger, it confers significant advantage. Hence the famous saying in tech, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM”. The same is true when trying to get companies to speak out on a topic. The first question is often, “well, who else has signed on” and organizers have to often to triangulate to get three or more to agree to go together to even get them to take a stand. But once they do, that gives comfort to others not brave enough to go first to sign on.
Second, being first can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging. In fact, first mover advantage is a concept that sounds good, but research shows that “it depends.” Yes, there are examples where being first is most rewarding. I’m sure the first investors and employees in Google are pretty happy about that decision. In Webvan, the early, early version of Instacart? Not so much. Being the first customer often means the company is learning, a lot, about their product “in the wild”. I know WeSpire’s earliest customers were critical to making our platform the best in the business. But sometimes those lessons were painful for everyone involved. Being the first organization to take a stand on a topic can open you up to criticism. One of my favorite stories about Marc Benioff, the famously outspoken CEO of Salesforce, is when Colin Powell warned him, “The farther you go up the tree, the more your backside is going to be exposed.”
But without people (and behind an organization, there is always a person) daring to go first, to take a risk and lead change, nothing improves. In her essay “Dare to Go First”, National teacher of the year Shannon Peeples shares stories of educators willing to go first to make changes to teaching approaches, often against the inertia of educational policy, union rules, budget cuts, and more. She uses these stories of victories to inspire more individuals to lead change at the local level. “In my visits with teachers, I've found that one of the most depressing things I hear is a variation of: "I can't do_____, I'm just a teacher." But in my mind, only a teacher can do the kinds of advocacy we are called to do…Someone has to go first. Why not you?”
We are at a time in history where a lot needs to change, and fast. Therefore, we need more people willing to be the first. The first investor to back a new idea. To be the first company to implement a new technology. To be the first employee to tell leadership they need to take a stand. Everyone has an opportunity in their lives to be the first to do something to make the world a better place. Someone has to go first. Why not you?