The deception of history

Reading about Craigs list the other day I started thinking about business history and strategy. As entrepreneurs we often get fooled by the deception of history. And it’s easy to see why. All the business books and articles we read on success are based on what someone or some company we respect did. The problem with this is that the world lives in a state of flux, and what worked then, most certainly wont work now. This is where the Craig’s list example comes to the fore.

Craigslist Head office

Would a 3 color page of hyperlinks which looks like the internet did in 1994 work today? Highly unlikely. Craigslist works now, because it worked well then. It had things working in it’s favour like the ‘in crowd’ in the Bay area spreading the word. That it was first to market with an on-line classified. Now these legacy issues become a strategic proposition which is worth maintaining. What it doesn’t mean is that it’s a strategic template worth copying for Startup X. It’s also less likely we’ll get the support needed from the web community or the investors needed.

The same can be said for pretty much any startup with an interesting history.

A social networking site which is set up for alumni of an Ivy League University probably wouldn’t work.

A trading website where auctions are used to develop the perfect market place probably wouldn’t work.

An on-line retailer which aims to sell every book available in the world probably wouldn’t work.

As entrepreneurs, what we are better off understanding is the insights into why things worked, and try and leverage human behavior in developing a strategic direction to launch our business.


3 Comments The deception of history

  1. Sean Murphy

    I think the problem comes from inexact (or perhaps too literal and low level) pattern matching. You cannot hope to plant a sapling where a large tree is already growing (e.g. your example of trying to start a social networking site that focuses on Ivy League schools would be “in the shade” of Facebook). But as Mark Twain said “History does not repeat itself, but it can rhyme.”

    For example, looking at Facebook Chris Dixon abstracts the following rule in “Six Strategies for Overcoming Chicken and Egg Problems”

    3. Exploit irregular network topologies. In the last 90s, most people assumed that dating websites was a “winner take all market” and had won it, until a swath of niche competitors arose (e.g. Jdate) that succeeded because certain groups of people tend to date others from that same group. Real-life networks are often very different from the idealized, uniformly distributed networks pictured in economics textbooks. Facebook exploited the fact that social connections are highly clustered at colleges as a “beachhead” to challenge much bigger incumbents (Friendster). By finding clusters in the network smaller companies can reach critical mass within those sub-clusters and then expand beyond.

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