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First on Board, Still Missing the Boat

Travel back over a century. Three wealthy men intending to tour the world are deciding on which passage to book in order to make the voyage from Europe to North America. Two of the men are keen on buying tickets for the maiden voyage of a brand new luxury steam-liner, as one does when you're wearing a top hat and monocle in the early 20th century. The other man is against this idea.

I guess he was the frugal one.

As the argument over which ship to take circles round and round, one of the wealthy men grabs a single coin out of his monogrammed sack of money and flips it to decide which course of action he and his companions should take.

He lofts the coin high above his head, and depending on what currency he was flipping, the head of one famous person or another reveals itself, deciding a jaunt on the new luxury cruise ship will have to be saved for another day.

As novel as it would be to be among the first passengers on board the new cruise ship, the men travel economy on a different boat instead.

The year? 1912.

The once in a lifetime boat ride they missed? The Titanic.

Sometimes being the first on board can be just (if not more) damaging as missing the boat entirely.

In fact, sometimes being the first one on the ship is what ends up leading you to miss the boat.

Allow me to explain the logical fallacy above.

Adapt or die is an all too familiar tune in the marketing world. We’ve all heard plenty of examples of businesses and brands failing to capitalize on industry change or new technology and then suffering for it. But often, we forget to consider the implications of showing up to the game too early.

Even those who’ve succeeded by being first to show up aren’t immune to the consequences of showing up too soon. Just because being early on the scene worked once doesn’t guarantee that lightning will strike twice. Sears was an industry innovator decades before the Titanic was even constructed, sending beautiful retail catalogues to the furthest reaches of the country. Not only did Sears establish firm foundations in success by being one of the first businesses to pursue the mail order strategy, they learned a lesson in the value of being among the first to try something new.

Fast forward a century. When ecommerce was merely in its infancy, Sears was among the first retail businesses to help launch any semblance of a usable online shopping experience (Prodigy) for consumers and was dabbling in selling its wares online long before launching its own website in 1999. So, with such a storied history of early adoption and success, why has the retail behemoth undergone such turbulent financial results?

While Sears hopped on the ecommerce boat long before many of its retail competitors, the apparent confidence in their lead seemed to grind any further ecommerce integration into their business to an eventual halt. In short, they may have been first on the boat, but their boat wasn’t going anywhere. Now certainly, other factors had a part to play in Sears’ journey down the path of financial ruin, but a failure to evolve the strategy they were originally early adopters of played a significant part in this downfall. While competitors like Target were integrating their digital experience into a wider omnichannel strategy. Sears seemed indifferent to utilizing the digital approach of which it was once a pioneer, garnering extremely low traffic to Sears.com and doing little to integrate the consumer experience online with their brick and mortar stores.

Being first on the boat does little good if you immediately abandon ship. Kodak successfully built their first digital camera in 1975. You know what they did with this revolutionary technology? Nothing. While they continued to tinker and toy with the new technology, Kodak completely wasted their first-class status and did little in introducing the new technology to the marketplace. When they finally came around and rolled out their first digital camera to consumers in 1995, there were still very few competitors playing in the digital film arena. However, highly dependent on the sale of physical film for profit, Kodak was mind numbingly slow in the continued innovation of their digital camera line and soon fell behind an ever increasing set of competitors. Instead of innovating a category of which they were virtually the first on board, using their head start and technical expertise to learn how to make digital film profitable, Kodak jumped ship and swam for more the more familiar waters of physical film. While they eventually recognized their mistake, it wasn’t soon enough to save them from their glacier like progression towards Chapter 11.

Innovation will always remain necessary to keep a brand from sinking. Markets change. Populations change. Technologies change. Industries change. Adapt or die is still canon law. But without continued initiative to drive those innovations forward, all the new technology and strategy in the world will do little good in protecting you from the seas of change.

You may be lucky enough to stay afloat, but you’ll be dead in the water.

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