Has Mobile Killed The Fast Follower Strategy? Sure Looks That Way…

Has mobile killed the “fast follower” strategy? The ability of a second-mover company to mimic (copy?) a more innovative competitor and eventually own the market? In 2010, Entrepreneur Steve Blank suggested the data shows you’re better off fast following than originating – citing companies like Google who benefited from combining somebody else’s business model with their search technology.

Now just a few years later, it feels like mobile has increasingly rewarded being first to market with a product that people want – especially in the Consumer market. Instagram, Snapchat, Line, Twitter, Foursquare comes to mind as mobile-first innovators who have been able to hold off imitations by larger tech companies and fast follow startups.

Here are some hypotheses why:

  • Time to Market Delayed By iOS App Store Approvals: On the web you could just push code and control your own release cycle. iOS inserts a delay while Apple reviews and approves your app. The first mover has already cleared this hurdle and subsequent app updates have less friction due to Apple’s familiarity with the product. Fast follower needs to essentially get approval to launch.
  • Discovery Has Changed: iOS App Store promotion and word-of-mouth via social media are much bigger distribution forces today than three years ago. Sure a fast follower with a marketing budget can drive paid installs and ad-based promotion, but organic and editorial discovery is more important with mobile. This favors the innovator, not the mimic. When was the last time Apple featured a fast follower app? They want to drive the new, hot, best-looking apps because that’s what keeps iPhone as the platform of choice.
  • Changing Impact of Social: Using Facebook Connect, Twitter Followers and address books, access to social graphs have become a commodity. Sure you can innovate on virality, but smaller first movers can scale quickly. Fast followers typically exploited their existing distribution footprint but this isn’t as meaningful an advantage in the social mobile world.┬áPurely anecdotal, but clicking on a link is easy where I’ll often need to hear about an app from a friend before I go through the multiple clicks required to install.
  • Apps Tend to Be Single Purpose So Bolting Feature Into Larger App Doesn’t Work: Classic fast follow move was to just ship someone’s product as a feature on your already bloated client software or as another tab on your website. Mobile apps tend to be designed for speed and single purpose – you click on a “button” (app icon) and something is expected to happen. Facebook just adding another feature to what is already a very complex app isn’t as much of a threat to startups anymore.
  • The Impact of Design: Ok, stay with me here. The rise of “good design” as user expectation is often understood to be about pixels and beauty. I believe it’s deeper than that, especially on mobile devices – these phones and tablets you lovingly caress in your hands and hold close to your face; which literally get warm with use. Purrrrrrrr. Love is a component of good design. That is, innovators usually really really love what they’re building and this comes through in their design. Little flourishes. Fast followers are driven primarily by fear or greed. I’d hold that these root motivations can be unconsciously felt in their products. I don’t have specific examples – maybe Instagram vs other photo services with filters; or Snapchat vs lookalikes.

This post is definitely a work-in-progress – perhaps there are many examples of fast follow mobile apps that have gained tremendous usage or the strategy will become more successful again as mobile matures, but as an investor in mobile applications, definitely thinking about these questions.

Mobile Monday

I was speaking at the Rutberg & Co 2007 Wireless Influencers summit yesterday so got to be a fly on the wall among many CEOs and SVPs as Google made its Open Handset announcement.

My panel was focused on Consumer Experiences for Audio and Video Discovery — i measure the success of smaller roundtable discussions by how many times people to write down what i say and engage in the conversation. By that measure it was a great success — lots of interaction and folks definitely took notes on my market research, design advice and other mobile video topics.