When I was a little grokling, I always used to hear a fable about a race between two creatures, in which it seems laughably obvious that one is going to absolutely cream the other. But, surprise, surprise … the underdog prevails. You wouldn't know the creatures in my fable, but you have a tale just like it: The Tortoise and the Hare. And the moral is the same: slow and steady wins the race. Focus on the task at hand, single-mindedly see it through, and the gold can be yours!

Great moral, yet traditional businesses have had to learn it over and over again. Now, with so many “first movers” biting the dust, I think it’s time for those of us in this brave new world of e-commerce to finally absorb the lesson those other businesses, following in the footsteps of that cocky rabbit, had to swallow. Humans seem to value being really fast and getting there first, even though neither one guarantees long-term success. In an article that had me clapping, Jim Collins writes,

I recently met with the CEO of a hot Internet company who described his concept for competing on the Web: "It's a big land rush," he explained. "It's all about being the first to build critical mass and create a brand name." Then, in a bizarre twist, he admitted that his company's Web site didn't work all that well and that customers might be disappointed by their early experiences. … His strategy hinged on one simplistic idea: be there fast, be there first, and you win.1

People think of Internet time as a kind of speed-of-light game; if you can't get it together in the next 15 minutes (better to have got it together yesterday), you are dead in the water. Someone else will get there first, faster. So, the illogic goes, someone else will win. If you think you’re lost because somebody got there first, wouldn’t you love to hear me say, “It ain't so”? Well, "It ain't so."

Being fast and first is all too often its own liability. There are lots of others out there, biding their time, learning from your mistakes, and making plans to do the job even better. You know how to recognize the pioneers, don’t you? They’re the ones with all the arrows in their backs. Collins's article is full of great examples from the archives of business history. VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet, lost out to Lotus, which lost out to Excel … and the company that developed VisiCalc doesn't even exist anymore. The first PC’s came from Sol, and Altair and a dozen other names now long-forgotten. The first portable computers came from companies like Osborne Computer (also extinct). Apple had one of the first handheld personal computers (the now ubiquitous Personal Digital Assistant), but who remembers the Newton? Today, everyone calls them "palm pilots" the way they call tissues "Kleenex" (in case you’ve been visiting me on Mars, Palm Pilot™ is 3Com's PDA).

IBM wasn't first in the computer market (remember Univac?). Boeing wasn't first in commercial aviation (remember De Haviland's Comet?) And Hewlett-Packard's Personal Computer Group took 17 years to top the PC market. Are you getting the idea? "It doesn't really matter who gets there first, so long as you figure out a way to produce a better solution, doggedly persist in bringing that solution to the world, and continually improve," concludes Collins.

Contrary to naysayers, the "land rush" in e-commerce isn't all that different, despite our concept of Internet time in the world of clicking. The bottom line is the same: customers won’t accept lengthy downloads, confusing sites, hidden charges, obnoxious policies or lousy service. How is it possible so many dot-coms missed that, and still do? Yes, there is one important difference thanks to the Internet: it puts the customer in the driver's seat even more than before. Your customers have an unprecedented range of choices available to them. Your competitors are just a click away. If you don’t listen to what your customers value and want, then deliver brilliantly, being first to market will only mean being first to fail. To succeed out there, you need learn from everybody and work at being best.

So, go on. Dare to be different. Dare to be the tortoise. See you at the finish line!

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