Tom Webster, writing and speaking

On Being Ahead Of Your Time

Added on by Tom Webster.

Space Ship, taken by ppphotographsTen years ago I was a partner in a new media startup based in London. We were well-funded, had a great idea, and built what I still believe was a great product. We burned through our funding in about a year and a half, laid off 35 people, and I was back in the US before I could really even process what happened. This particular chapter hurt pretty bad, and I'd like to be able to say I'm over it, but I'm really not. Many of us have kept in touch. Often, over a pint or two, we console ourselves with the knowledge that we were just ahead of our time. Certainly, there are some very successful brands today that are basically doing what we did. We just did it before the market was ready.


We were trendsetters, marketing to trendsetters. The "trendsetter/laggard" dichotomy gets thrown around a lot in marketing, but it's too judgmental, and suffers from a bad case of survivor bias. Sometimes, trendsetters are just the first ones off the cliff. Winners write the business best sellers, but often the losers were just as daring. Sometimes the "laggards" are blind to the future, yes - but sometimes, being a laggard is a well thought-out strategic choice.

Never forget this when you are searching for social media case studies or models to follow. Sometimes the razor thin margin between the ones you choose to learn from and the ones you discard isn't execution, or funding, or the strength of an idea. Sometimes, it's just one person, a missed phone call, or one bad roll. Or, as we liked to tell ourselves, we were just "too early."

It's taken me the better part of the past decade to realize this, but now I can say this easily, even glibly: There's no such thing as being ahead of your time. This is a romantic notion, preserved by the less introspective amongst us. We were of our time. We were marketing to potential customers of our time. And we misread that market. Badly.

I mentioned earlier that the winners get to write the history books. This is true, but the losers keep a private history as well - and it is often as skewed by losing as the winners' histories are by victory. Today, many of you (if I'm reading my audience correctly) are involved in some aspect of social media - and are either making decisions about how your company should engage, or are at least attempting to influence those decisions at some level. You'll be tempted to look at case studies - anecdotes of the past - with an eye towards fitting them to a pattern in your mind. In other words, looking for evidence, not information. Be very careful of this, for it may lead to winning a battle, but ultimately losing the war.

Now is a great time to take a hard, clear look at how you expend your energies in social media. Are you "ahead of your time?" Waiting for the world to catch up? Or are you constructing scenarios to succeed under a wide variety of possible conditions?

See you in the future.

Photo Credit: "Space Ship", taken by ppphotographs on Flickr. Some rights reserved.