Why Coming Second Will Help Ensure You Win- Every Time

Wrestling Possums - PicassoI have always believed to succeed in business, ‘being first’ would be a bloody good place to start. But I was wrong. The fact is, coming second, or even third, is critical to succeeding in business and often, in life. Here’s why.

Malcolm Gladwell spoke about it at the Cannes Creativity Festival in June 2011: how innovators often are not the ones who end up commercializing their innovations. Rather, someone else sees it, tweaks it, refines it, popularizes it, and makes a fortune out of it. Think “Steve Jobs , the mouse, icons and stealing Xerox’s great ideas…” Jobs stole the ideas and made them great. He made a fortune out of this.

I liked the concept, but did not really understand the point, until I read this great quote from an Australian rugby union legend, John Eales, who said:

“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

That’s it! It’s the second mouse who gets the prize. That poor old first mouse… he had the idea first- to nab that cheese… and, well, he’s stuck under that wire trap, just in front of the cheese, and sadly, is very dead.  But the second mouse? Munch munch! Being first with an idea , product, suggestion or approach can of course often bring benefits, but the bigger prize can await those who bide their time, take an idea and make it much, much better.

To win by being second or third, you have to learn to be an outstanding thief.

I have unashamedly ‘listened like a thief’ all my career, grabbing ideas and thoughts I have liked, branding them as my own and using them, with a tweak and a twist. Sometimes I will credit others. Often not.  And I always encourage others to do the same with whatever they can steal from me. Take it. Please. Use it. Make it better. Make it YOURS!

Picasso knew it: “A good artist copies,” he wrote. “But a great artist steals!”

Jobs knew it: “I’ve been shameless about stealing great ideas.” He talked a lot about ‘tweakers and implementers.”

I had lunch recently with the inspiring, insightful Martin Grunstein. He’s a trainer and speaker on customer service excellence.

I listened like a thief all through the quick one hour lunch, and scribbled notes furiously. I’m looking at these now on this flight to Singapore. “Martin,” I told him. “I want you to know I am going to steal just about every one of these ideas, brand them as mine, refine them and use them.” “Go ahead!”, he enthused. “I’d be delighted. I get most of my material by listening to others. Go for it.”

One idea he shared was his annual key marketing initiative- writing hand-written notes to his 400 most important contacts and potential referrers, and then following up with each with a call. “This generates a large part of my work flow for the following year. I send the notes on 27 November, prior to the Christmas rush. They stand out by being early, and hand-written.”

“I am going to steal that idea, Martin, and use it. Tell me, don’t you worry that competitors will use these ideas and steal your thunder?”

“Not really,” he replied.” As I say to my clients when we talk about great customer service ideas, and they worry competitors will copy their ideas and improve on them: ” Have faith,” I say. ” Never underestimate the laziness of your competition.”’

Here’s the challenge for you

Don’t let laziness do you in. Listen like a thief, every day.

Look for ideas and innovations all around you, being used by competitors or people and businesses totally unrelated to your world. What can you steal, refine, tweak, improve, make relevant to your world. Do it. Do it now. Do it often.

I have built a career around it. And continue to steal, unashamedly, every day. That’s why I am usually the second mouse (though perhaps I have been eating too much cheese lately, dammit. Time for bigger jeans….).

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8 Responses to Why Coming Second Will Help Ensure You Win- Every Time

  1. Cameron Wall April 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    Also a great song by legendary Aussie band INXS

    – INXS LYRICS – Listen Like Thieves –

  2. Carl Sherriff April 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Thanks for a great article Chris.

    What came to mind immediately was the famous headline, ‘Avis is only No.2 in rent a cars. So why go with us?’ Followed by some great copy, which included, ‘We try harder’ and ‘The line at our counter is shorter’.

    • Chris Savage April 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

      Thanks Carl. Good example!

  3. Simon April 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Lovely stuff Chris. Steve Jobs’s biography covers a bit of this and Job’s philosophy about launching third. First launch sensitises the market, second refines the offer and weeds out the mistakes, the third nails it!

    • Chris Savage April 12, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      Simon! How wonderful to hear from you. Think of you so often. See you in October! Xxx

  4. Gary April 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    This is unreservedly true, it’s why we use trend reports and why CDs have thief best ideas after judging awards 😉

    Imitation is the greatest form of flattery…

  5. Joe dredd April 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    So much for innovation

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