I’ve a friend who is in the early stages of developing an innovative app.  Recently, he was disheartened when he was looking in the app store and discovered that someone had already built it.

I’ve been there several times.  You think you’ve identified an opportunity or unexploited idea and get really excited.  And then a couple weeks into working on it you stumble across someone who has already done it.  Fuck!

In our current age, it’s incredibly difficult to find unexploited opportunities.  

There are massive incentives to create solutions and few barriers to do so.  Products continuously spawn in this fertile environment- all the way down into the crevices of every microscopic niche and razor thin vertical.

First mover advantage is not going to happen for most of us.

But this isn’t bad, because there are some real advantages to being a Johnny-come-lately.  Not only should you not be dejected by our high competition environment, you should embrace it.  

Because it’s ripe for pirates.

Pirates and Explorers

A couple years ago at Microconf, Kissmetrics founder Hiten Shah gave a talk where he introduced the idea of entrepreneurs as “pirates” or “explorers”.

Explorers are the first mover inventors. Explorers are the team at Xerox that developed the mouse and GUI.

Pirates are the fast follower entrepreneurs who tune invention to market needs. Pirates are Steve Jobs who turned Xerox’s innovation into the Apple Lisa.

3 Pirate Advantages

1. Pirates don’t waste time and money on discovery.

First mover advantage is a huge advantage.  But it doesn’t come around often because most things don’t work.  Most explorers’ ships sail off the edge of the world.

As a pirate, someone else is footing the bill on ideas that don’t work as products.

2. Pirates operate in an information rich environment.

When someone else has already tried or built your idea, they tend to leave ripples in the water:

  • People have reviewed the product (high definition consumer research.)
  • You can fingerprint it to see what technology they’re using to solve problems.
  • You have a functioning prototype to use as a base.
  • Their marketing tactics are probably at least partially visible, giving you an idea of what they tried and what may have worked.

3. Pirates plunder weakly executed ideas.

More often than finding your idea well executed, you’ll find an explorer that didn’t know how to market their invention, or listen to their customers, or possibly distracted with another project or job.

In other words, you’ll find a ship in the doldrums.

There are a couple ways pirate’s plunder these ships:

  • The best case scenario is that you buy them and utilize an advantage you already have to get wind behind the failing product’s sails.
  • Next best is to position off of their failings.  An example of this is competitive SEO, like creating a page for “[Competitor] alternatives”.
  • You can also just rip, pivot, jam what’s working for them into an adjacent higher value market.

Rewards are In Leadership, Not in Sequence

First mover advantage is powerful because it positions you as the market leader.

And that’s what actually matters.

If you were first or fifth doesn’t change a thing if you are the market leader.

When we think of personal computers and smartphones, we think of Apple and Steve Jobs- but his company invented neither of those things.

When we think of electric cars, we think of Tesla and Elon Musk, but the invention goes all the way back to the 1820’s.

So if you’ve found a competitor leading the way- good.   

The pirate’s question is: 

Can you steal leadership from them in a market they’re operating in?

Hiten’s Slides & Attribution

Check out Hiten’s slides here to learn a bit more about his pirates versus explorer concept (it was just a segment of a larger talk).

Image credits: Pompey by Nasidius, Roman Pirate & General


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