The ‘Add an S’ Heuristic. (Last Mover Advantage)

My Mom has an incredibly vast vocabulary.

I love doing things with my Mom.

Naturally, these collisions of interest led us both to the game of Scrabble. As a kid, I’d find moments to fit in games, usually a matchup of titans that also included my younger brother.

My Mom would always play very unique, impressive words with solid point values. Quorum comes to mind. Her words would often draw ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from my brother and me for their creativity. Her strategy was to win through sheer mastery of the English language.

I had a different approach.

There was only one letter that I wanted to find after reaching into that noisy pile of little wood tiles: the S.

I’d stockpile these nuclear weapons in my war-chest and wait for just the right spot in the board to appear. Maybe Mom placed Quorum right before a triple word, which just so happened to line up with the tail end of my brothers Zit.

My fingers quivered with anticipation the moment before I’d expose the dream killer.

I’d swiftly slam down the single point SI’d confidently relay the number to my brother, our official game accountant so that he could add it to the overall tally.

‘That one is worth 81.”

My deflated counterpoints demanded we consult the Scrabble Elders to assess the legality of this seemingly unjust manipulation. Too late.

To them this was unfair leapfrogging. To me, it was art.

Don’t build the board, fill gaps.

Some of the most successful technology companies have won using this ‘Add an S’ heuristic. For example:

Airbnb ‘S-ed’  Couchsurfing.

Facebook ‘S-ed’  Friendster.

Google ‘S-ed’  AltaVista.

Startups are not built to spend all their cash on customer education. They are supposed to spend it on customer acquisition. These two are easily conflated yet they are definitely not the same thing. For example, TiVo was a $200m customer education exercise that paved the way for millions of knockoff Time Warner DVRs to acquire all their (now wonderfully educated) customers.

I’m not arguing here that customer education is inherently evil. What I’m saying is that education is a strategy designed to eventually transition money from your customer’s wallet into yours (not someone else’s).

If you sell a product before anyone deeply feels the unmet need it solves, you’re unfortunately going to be spending a boatload of money making them feel said need. You’re going to be building the whole Scrabble board from scratch.

If you find that it is going to take too much time and money to incept your customers into acquiring a taste for your product, modify your offering.

In all likelihood someone bigger is waiting for you to do their R & D for them on your dime. Sure, if you move fast enough maybe they’ll acquire you instead, but ‘let’s cross our fingers and hope we get bought’ is not a strategy.

Instead, scale as if you need to become an actually functional business with a clear path to market saturation independent of acquisition scenarios. You can’t do that if you are spending all your time on heavy-handed customer education in the market you think you want in lieu of acquiring customers in a market that already want the thing you can make.

Uncover that stagnant industry that has not been Warby Parker-fied. Reconfigure an asset class that has not been Uberized. Attack that bloated sector that has not been SpaceX’d. Ask yourself what are the cleverest ways to solve an existing need 10x better on a dimension customers will still care about 10 years from now.

Find your gap, build your game piece, and look for opportunities to Add an S.


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