While "first-mover advantage" was once lauded by management literature as the optimum strategy for market entry, this guidance proved fickle; first to the party was shortly displaced by its close cousin "second-mover advantage". The thought went that the "second mover" could learn from the mistakes of the pioneering entrant who was likely to run out of money while trying to educate the market.
Of course, some of these initial pioneering entrants did not run out of money. They ended up dominating their space, thus striking a blow for advocates of being a "second mover". So which strategy truly wins?
For "first movers" there are a number of poster boys. Take Twitter, the micro-blogging platform, which has become so dominant that successful market entry by a direct competitor would be difficult to comprehend. The launch of the iPad created the tablet market, which did not exist prior to its launch but has since been flooded with entrants. For some cash-rich entrepreneurs, with the pockets, vision and patience of someone like Steve Jobs, the lack of a market is an opportunity rather than a problem.
However, in the majority of cases, there may be no competition because there are structural reasons why a market does not exist (such as a lack of demand or a market size that is currently too small to serve profitably). In other words, the entrepreneur may simply have misread the opportunity!
For "second movers," you can generally enter the market without the cost of the first mover. A subsequent entrant can study the incumbent when deciding how to design and position their offering. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Competition also helps from a marketing perspective - trying to educate and attract a market on your own is a very costly exercise. However, in some cases the first mover is so dominant, subsequent entry would not be advised.
In other instances market entry is not always so easily defined. A recent example from the U.S. is the almost simultaneous market entry of Gowalla and FourSquare, both location-based social networking sites. These were soon followed by Rummble, and a host of others.
For entrepreneurs the lessons are clear - there are different things to be aware of when you start your business, in terms of market entry. If the market does not yet exist you need to ensure you have deep pockets as marketing is likely to be extremely costly. You also need to be confident that you are not 'misreading the opportunity'.
In the majority of cases, however, it is likely that there will already be a player in your space. In many ways, starting up in a competitive environment is a good thing. Competition sends a strong signal; demand exists, and a market is being established to meet this demand. After all, this removes one of the biggest issues entrepreneurs face - will there be demand for my product or service?
The reality is that competition is increasingly intense in most industry sectors. The growth of the internet has also lowered the barriers to entry, given its ability to provide relatively cheap access to much greater audiences without the costs associated with physical outlets.
The key is to recognise that competition has benefits and is a "fact of business". If you offer a more compelling value proposition and have an effective marketing strategy in place, you can compete effectively.
Potential entrants must not be dissuaded from entering competitive markets, but rather should focus on the elements they can control so they can target a niche they can profitably exploit.
Alan Gleeson is the General Manager of Palo Alto Software, creators of Business Plan Pro®. He holds an MBA from Oxford University and an MSc from University College, Cork, Ireland. For further information on writing a business plan, visit www.paloalto.com