May 22nd, 2012 • Posted by George May • Permalink
As the Facebook IPO started trading last week, I found myself
struck by a question that has popped into my head many times before when
considering innovative companies (other than the usual question: "Why don't I own a few million shares?"). The question is this: Why is it that some companies (and products)
succeed so wildly, even though they aren't the first of their kind? Or, to put it differently: How does a company like Facebook seemingly
catch lightning in a bottle where others did not?
previous blog posts, I've ruminated a bit about how innovation seems to
have slowed in many industries. What
I've concluded is that it is fairly rare to deliver something that is truly,
entirely new. More often, what happens
is that someone finds a new way to solve a problem or to implement something
that is so intuitive, so impactful, so right
- that it simply becomes the way that problem is solved from that point
Facebook is an excellent example. As everyone knows, Facebook was not the first
social media site in the world. MySpace
was available earlier (and Friendster even before MySpace), offering many of
the same ways to store content (photos, videos, comments and so forth). How was it that Facebook exploded in growth
while MySpace withered?
(As recently tweeted by Conan O'Brien:)
(Hard to say it better than that.)
Mark Zuckerberg and company seemed to understand from the
first that Facebook had to be more than a place to park stuff for your "friends"
to see. MySpace catered to people
wanting to have what amounts to a personal Web site. Facebook, on the other hand, was about connecting people to one another through
their postings and their comments about others.
The ubiquitous "Like" function - important enough to be found on the sign
outside of Facebook corporate headquarters - says more about the difference
in the Facebook approach than perhaps anything else. Furthermore, as highlighted so well in the
movie The Social Network, Zuckerberg understood that the
"Relationship Status" function was of special importance to his fellow college
students, telling them who was available (and perhaps open to dating) and who
was not. Through these simple pieces of
breakthrough thinking (as well as some marvelous execution and operational
performance), Facebook managed to sprint past its established rivals.
Beyond analyzing where Facebook did things right, it's worth
focusing a bit of time on where MySpace might have gone wrong. As popular as it was at its peak (mostly with
younger people), MySpace never really caught on with people who were technology
averse. Casual users could certainly
figure out MySpace, but it was never something your grandfather would spend any
time on. When Facebook came along, it
emphasized overall ease of use, a very simple way to join and create a
presence, and the aforementioned abilities to connect with people. Suddenly, there was a new and more effective
way to stay in touch with people.
MySpace was never positioned that way. When my 76-year-old father-in-law
sent me a Friend request, I knew for certain that Facebook had won the battle.
As with many breakthrough technologies, the key to the
ubiquity of Facebook is that anyone can wander up and figure out what to do
with it in just a few minutes. Certainly
you can go deeper if you want, but it takes little to no investment of time and
attention to get real results. That's
real innovation. Products don't become
ubiquitous without it.
So we see that the most successful endeavors are often not the
first to attempt to solve a problem, but are instead products or services that
solve a problem in a new, more effective or more elegant way. When you think about it, examples of this
kind abound. Nokia preceded Apple into
the cell phone market. Whose position
would you rather have today? Yahoo
preceded Google as an Internet search engine and content aggregation site. Now, Google has been the most popular Internet
search engine for years, while Yahoo
is once again looking for a new CEO.
Here at Exemplify, we are currently running the beta program
for our new product. As you might
expect, this has been a remarkable experience for us with our new company. It's very exciting to put a new legal
technology innovation in front of expert lawyers for the first time and see how
In some ways, the results have not been surprising. Given that our founder Robert Anderson is himself
a transactional lawyer and law professor, we knew that Exemplify would appeal
to attorneys in transactional practice.
What we did not anticipate is the reaction to the concept itself as a
breakthrough. Time after time, attorneys
have said the equivalent of "I've never seen anything like this before." Knowledge management (KM) leaders of
considerable experience have told us that Exemplify is not comparable to any
product they can name, but rather is a category unto itself.
As with the Facebook example, this does not seem to be
occurring because there aren't any other solutions for transactional
attorneys. (In a
previous blog post, I offered some thoughts on how Exemplify differs from
other offerings meant to serve transactional lawyers.) There are some fine technologies in place to
assist transactional attorneys, but I would be hard-pressed to name any
existing offering that is a must-have for transactional practice or that is
widely used by transactional attorneys directly. If you ask transactional attorneys what they
themselves use regularly, the answers will not point to any clear market-leading
offering. Moreover, many of the
solutions they do know are products that they themselves do not use. Rather, many of these tools are operated by
people others than those directly crafting transactional language - librarians,
KM experts, paralegals or practice support lawyers (PSLs).
With Exemplify, it appears that we have succeeded in capturing
the excitement that comes from showing people a completely novel way to solve a
problem that has existed for quite a while, but has never been approached in
quite the same way. In administering our
beta program, I have lost count of how many times attorneys have engaged
strongly over the core concepts of Exemplify, essentially describing the uses
of the product before we have a chance to do so ourselves. This has also led to an exceptionally valuable
series of suggestions for new features and the identification of additional use
cases - again, several of them beyond what we ourselves had envisioned. We are busily adding these new features to
the product right now.
There is something very satisfying in being present when a
potential client looks at what you've done and sees what they've been waiting
for, even though they haven't seen anything quite like it before. We are looking forward to the commercial launch
of our product here in the short term.
We are very excited to see if the promise of Exemplify catches on in the
legal technology world the way we have seen with innovations such as Facebook
in the wider market.