An excerpt from Sidestep and Twist, (your comments welcome!):
One of the greatest myths of our time is this: if you create something original, something that’s genuinely a breakthrough, you have a better than average chance of getting rich. For most businesses and most entrepreneurs, this notion is something of a fantasy. If you think back over the great corporate successes of the last two or so decades, you’ll find a striking absence of any great breakthroughs significant enough in themselves to create huge wealth. On the other hand, many endeavours that have become hits are at best incremental improvements of other things.
It is a story I’ve found repeated time and time again, across sectors, countries, and cultures. Hit products and services are almost never genuinely original.
Some readers will be familiar with the top-selling drug of all time, a product called Lipitor, by Pfizer. It has broken all records in the deeply research-dependent drug business. But Lipitor wasn’t all that new. It was the fifthdrug in its class, and was just a bit stronger than what came before. Yet it has eclipsed all its competitors.
Even if you’ve never taken Lipitor, it is almost certain you’ve heard of the world’s best selling book series. Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling, is a publishing juggernaut.
But Harry Potter is, in fact, based on a long tradition of stories set in British boarding schools, such as the famous Tom Brown’s School Days, topped up with a smattering of slightly derivative fantasy. What many readers don’t know, actually, is Britain’s best-selling fantasy author prior to J.K. Rowling was Terry Pratchett, whose novel Discworld has a school for young magicians and a young wizard with dark hair and glasses.
A lack of genuine originality is a feature of almost every category-defining product in the last decade. Was Facebook the first social network? Certainly not: MySpace, Friendster and a host of others preceded it. In fact, the first real social network was a site called SixDegrees.com, and it was founded a decade before Facebook’s meteoric rise began. Was it Google that created web search? Of course not: the company’s contribution was to improve what Alta Vista and the other web search engines that had pioneered the field were doing already.
I could spend pages and pages going through examples like these, and will do so later on in this book. But one thing unites all these products and services: they’re built on something that was working well somewhere else.
There’s another thing many of the great hits of the last decade have had in common: they’ve built their successes by creating value for customers that’s independent of the features of the core product itself. Facebook, for example, is valuable not because it has the best and most features of any social network, but because most people are on Facebook. The more people who join Facebook, the better it functions for everyone.
Why is Harry Potter a money-printing machine for J.K. Rowling and her publishers? Of course the books are great sellers, but it is the ecosystem of complimentary products the franchise has spawned: movies, toys and games, homewares, posters, trivia and all the rest – which create the extraordinary demand for the novels among ever-widening audiences.
How did a few derivative fantasy books manage to create such an ecosystem of demand? Why is Facebook the premiere social network? The answer is simple. Both are products that get better the more they are used. This is true for many – perhaps all – category-defining products we’ve seen in recent years.
And the key to all these successes is this: the sidestep and twist joins incrementally improving a product with a track record of working elsewhere, with strategies that ensure it gets better as it is consumed.