Being "First" Versus Being "Best"

Like many people today, I read Jose Antonio Vargas’ 6,000-word profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker. Unlike some, I found it neither boring nor damaging, but rather, thought-provoking. But actually, the thing that stuck out the most to me about the piece (beyond The West Wing stuff, which I still find humorous/interesting) wasn’t about Zuckerberg at all. Instead, it was something Chris Cox, Facebook’s head of product, said towards the end of the piece.

Getting there first is not what it’s all about. What matters always is execution. Always,” Cox told Vargas for the piece. This was in response to the idea that Facebook had copied Quora’s (a company started by a bunch of ex-early-Facebookers) idea with Facebook Questions. But it’s actually something I was thinking about quite a bit this weekend, entirely unrelated to Facebook.

Specifically, what got me thinking about this notion was Yahoo’s response to Google Instant last week. In a post titled: “Back to the Future: Innovation is Alive in Search,” Yahoo passive-aggressively notes how they beat Google to the innovation of realtime search results. And as a bonus, they even throw in a few veiled hints that they could sue Google for copying their idea if they wanted to thanks to their “filed patent applications” and “first developed” “intellectual property.”

I couldn’t come up with a good angle at the time beyond simply writing two words:

Shut. Up.

There are few things that annoy me more than a company coming out with a press release or blog post immediately after another company launches something that amounts to little more than “FIRST!” Yahoo’s response here is worse than your average one because of its passive-aggressiveness and veiled threats that they’re never going to follow-through with.

Just about every company is guilty of this to varying degree — including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, MySpace, etc. But it’s nonetheless extremely lame.

First of all, if you feel the need to remind the world that you did something first, you failed. This may mean that you failed either with the product itself or with the strategy in deploying it. But it doesn’t matter. A failure is a failure. If something was that great and revolutionary, people would recognize it.

Yahoo goes out of their way to note that Search Engine Land did recognize that Yahoo was doing “instant” search a while ago — but that’s that blog’s job to know that stuff. I’m talking about the public in general. Do they have any idea that Yahoo did “instant” search first? No. Because it failed when Yahoo did it.

That’s not to say Google’s will be a rousing success — who knows. But they did do a much better job making the public aware of it. Rolling it out to the homepage tends to do that. And so far, the execution seems there.

Saying you were first to do something is just such a waste of time. If you did it right, people will know that you were first. Sure, that’s not always the case with some small startups and companies like Facebook copying them. But in this particular case, we’re talking about Yahoo.

But let’s talk about Facebook here since Cox made that statement. He’s essentially saying that “first” doesn’t matter, “best” matters. I absolutely agree with that. At the same time, Facebook has come under fire for implementing ideas that smaller companies came up with first — just think about the whole concept of “likes” which was taken from FriendFeed (which Facebook only later bought). That has to be scary if a company with the reach of Facebook starts implementing your idea. We’re seeing this to a lesser degree with the Twitter ecosystem now as well.

There’s no question that some startups get screwed by this. But I have to be skeptical of startups whose core value can be so easily copied by a larger competitor. A successful model isn’t, “we’re going to kill it as XXXXX for Facebook — unless Facebook gets into that space.” If you’re idea is that good, you have to assume Facebook (or Twitter, or whoever) is going to get into that space. Judging from Cox’s comments, that’s exactly what happened with Questions.

And Questions is an interesting example. While it was initially hailed as a “Quora-killer”, so far, it doesn’t seem to be at all. Quora appears to be so much better as a core Q&A service right now, and the community is excellent. Nothing is certain, but they look to be well on their way to building a lasting product that at the very least will have a good exit — regardless of what Facebook does.

And that’s the key. Even if you are doing something that a larger competitor is likely going to do, just make sure you do it better. As a startup, you may not have all the resources of a Facebook, but there are benefits to being smaller and more focused as well. Use those.

We’re currently seeing that with Facebook Places versus Fourquare too. Everyone was so sure that Places would be the “Foursquare-killer” when it launched. But so far, it lacks the utility of Foursquare. That’s not to say that Facebook won’t add any of that, but right now, Foursquare has the advantage and they need to maintain that advantage, which they likely will be able to do.

And now here’s the part where I apply this to Apple — so Android fanboys, stop reading or just go right to the comments and start trolling. While Apple does delve into this “FIRST” nonsense every once in a while (though they tend to do it more on the legal end with IP suits — which may be even worse), they definitely seems to subscribe to the notion of “best” being more important than “first”.

When the iPod launched in 2001, there were a ton of MP3 players already on the market. It didn’t matter. Apple nailed it. And won as a result.

Now we’re seeing that with the iPad. When it launch earlier this year, all we heard about was how it would fail because others had tried this before and failed. I mean, Apple was copying Microsoft for chrissakes, right? Again, it didn’t matter. Apple nailed the tablet.

To a lesser extent, we see this with the features implemented in the iPhone. Apple wasn’t first to copy & paste (as everyone was painfully aware), but when they did launch it, they were the best at it. Best — not first.

My point is that it’s a bad sign when companies start whipping out the “FIRST” card. If someone is doing something better than you, note what you did wrong in your execution and move on. Create the next great thing that someone else will have to yell “FIRST” at you over. Don’t fixate on the past and your failures — that’s quicksand. The sands of time don’t exist.

Cox’s statement seems to indicate that Facebook gets this. They’re aiming for “best” not “first”. And that’s undoubtedly part of why they’re winning right now.

Record books celebrate the first. People celebrate the best.