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The First to Be Second

The other day I was at a panel about the use of Trajan in movie posters. The schedule description made it sound niche, obscure and trivial. So of course I had to go.

The presenter was a Belgium designer named Yves Peters (fontfeed.com). And he said something that has stuck with me. He said: “No one wants to be the first. Everyone wants to be the first to be second.”

Initially, the thought bummed me out. So many times in the creative industry, we try to do something truly innovative, but can’t get the right support because the idea is unproven. It’s always easier to sell an idea when you have a successful frame of reference. It’s always easier to sell being second.

But then I started thinking about the true value of being second. So many of the most successful companies and products today weren’t the first to do what they’re doing. Many of them weren’t even second. Or even third for that matter.

What was the first big online social network? Not Facebook. Not Myspace. The first social network to hit members in the millions was Friendster. And today, unless you’re old (ie over 20), you’ve probably never even heard of it.

What about the first MP3 player? I couldn’t tell you who made the first one, but it probably sucked.

My point: great ideas need time to incubate. Often they need numerous executions before they become truly amazing and truly successful. And even then, there’s always room for improvement.

So instead of always striving to be the first, maybe we should start by making good ideas better. And maybe in the process, we can turn those good ideas into great ones.

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