Illustration of a podium, but with the numbers on each stage changed

You don’t need to be first

I remember an idea I had when I was in my early twenties. I had just finished university and armed with a shiny certificate and just enough ability to write terrible web apps I came up with the idea for a new site which would allow for reviews of tradespeople.

I worked on building sites for six months in my teens so I had some experience of that world and I was fully aware of the power that a simple recommendation could provide. There are so many horror stories of bodging builders that if someone you trust can provide an honest review for one, chances are that’s who’ll you’ll go for.

The web app in question would allow for users to post verified reviews of builders, electricians, plumbers etc. There would be no cost to the reviewers, instead, revenue would be generated by the tradespeople who would have to pay to be listed on the site.

That was about as far as I got thinking through the concept because I then went on Google and found at least two other sites who were already set up and claiming to achieve the same or similar things. I didn’t look particularly closely because I thought I’d had an original idea, and was crushed to find out it had already been done.

Except in hindsight, it hadn’t. Thinking back, neither site functioned exactly how I thought they should. I gave up not because I didn’t think I could do a better job of the concept. I gave up just because the concept was already out there.

I hadn’t thought about this until recently when a couple of things happened. First, I heard an interview with a now-famous TikToker who claimed that no one would ever be able replicate the way that she’d found success. That struck me as arrogant and a bit deluded.

The second was that upon finishing Clarkson’s Farm, I had the idea for a site that would allow people to search for local farm shops and independent produce sellers. I immediately repeated my trick of several years ago and fired up Google to find out if this idea had also been taken. Alas, I found it had, with multiple sites claiming to list the farm shops in question.

But as I resigned myself to being unoriginal for life, I remembered something. Specifically, I remembered Bebo. Do you remember Bebo? Funnily enough it is back, at least in a closed beta (send me an invite?) Bebo was the first social network I was on, although it was launched a full two years after MySpace. From what I can recall, it had most if not all of the same features as Facebook. I remember posting images, commenting on them, and interacting with friends in similar ways. And yet Facebook.

Bebo officially launched a year after Facebook, but I remember it being incredibly popular in the UK. And even before that we had MSN Messenger, which was effectively a desktop version of WhatsApp. But in the case of Bebo, MySpace, and MSN Messenger, being first, was not particularly the be all and end all.

There are lots of reasons why these different social networking tools failed. Ultimately though, it comes down to the fact that being first is not always as important as being better. What Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and now TikTok have gotten right, is that they’ve simply built better tools. They’ve also marketed themselves better, positioned themselves better, and prioritised better.

So what does that mean for my ideas…and yours? Well, only fools rush in for sure. But what you can take away from these lessons from the recent past is that just because it’s already been done, doesn’t mean you can’t too it too. Just do it…better.