That's Why I fell for Leader of the Pack


Earlier this week I tweeted about a great article on the trials and tribulations of being a trendsetter. The article focused on fashion - where the life cycle is so short that within weeks of any success story there are knock-off artists hovering around like a pack of wolves. Perhaps fashion has the quickest cycle like this, but the industry of knocking off other successful people is certainly not limited to the soles of shoes or a certain cut of dress.

Recently I had my first experience with this. In the gift industry there is a rule - create any new product, and you had better sell the heck out of it in your first year - because within that year there will be someone else selling your product too. With factories in constant need of work to stay profitable, in many cases your own manufacturer will produce your product for your competitor, even if they 'guarantee' you an exclusive. I hadn't reinvented the wheel - but I had come up with a look and packaging for a particular product that was successful. It started getting press in trade publications, and before you could say boo our major competitor had their own version.

I try to take this as a compliment. After all, someone has to go first, right? A product isn't the same as a brand - the knock offs pictured above (via geekologie) are a little different than what I'm talking about. But to me it comes back to the same concept - investment safety. All new business ventures are scary. And this is especially true if you are the first to venture out.

Knocking off someone successful - their idea, product, brand - is not only easier than striking out on your own, but it is also less frightening.

Karen at SmilePlayLove posted an article by punk-rock business consultant Johnny B. Truant this week about being the first to do something. Johnny has "coined an axiom":

"If you’re the first person in your group to try a given thing, you’re going to look like a total idiot."

Seems a little depressing, and also entirely true. Trendsetters are often teased. Misunderstood. People think they are weird. That they are making wrong choices. Because they aren't following the herd. If you've ever been a trendsetter - or even an early adopter - you'll know exactly what I mean. 

But it isn't depressing. Trendsetters and leaders are the ones that break new ground, create new things, that will be soon followed. How does one know if the thing they are doing is a good idea? They don't. And that is the fear, the risk one takes. Don't get depressed by it. Don't see it as a problem. To succeed you have to take risks, put yourself out there, and accept the fact that it might just fail.

(photo: dave wyman)

When it comes to consumer products like gifts or fashion, is it worth patenting your idea? Probably not. The time, expense and effort it will take you to do this will probably distract you so much from the actual business you are operating that your competitors will already have made all the money you wanted to. Besides - if your idea is not worth knocking off, you've now spent a mint trying to protect something worthless.  Obviously this doesn't apply to technical inventions - that's a different ballgame. Go ahead and patent your functional time machine. Your time is better spent thinking of your next trendsetting product.

When it comes to being an entrepreneur, your business idea might sound crazy to your friends. People will find reasons to discourage your ideas. They will remind you of how many people fail. But safe ideas don't change anything. Entrepreneurs aren't people that do safe things. If you want to strike out on your own you have to be willing to be told that you are crazy, weird and a dreamer. Think of almost any crazy successful business concept. Each had a unique idea that at the time seemed really weird. Make burgers using an assembly line? Create a magazine where the cover features the same person every month? Make a vehicle that flies like a bird?

It is entrepreneurs, idea leaders, trendsetters who make innovation happen. These are the people who drive cultural change and innovation. So you have a choice - you can take the safe road, and maintain, or you can take the rocky road on the edge of a cliff and do something spectacular. Not for the faint of heart, not for the self-questioning. Not for the thin-skinned.

I think the only way to be that person is to do it for the love of it. You can't do it for the money. You have to do it because it seems fun, or because not doing something would be worse. In that case, taking the risk is enjoyable regardless if you succeed or not.

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