Akshit Pushkarna

Does being the first mover ensure long-term market dominance?

Industry experts examine challenges in staying atop emerging markets and the pace first movers must maintain for relevance.

Surviving in the business arena demands a flair for innovation and the ability to turn these innovative ideas into reality. While the sustainability of specific innovations remains debatable, these innovations often pave the way for entirely new business spheres, leading to a wave of similar ventures. The businesses which pioneered the space are often termed 'The First Movers'. 

However, being the first to enter a market doesn't guarantee a permanent top position. At the recently held afaqs! Startup Brands, Sreekant Khandekar, CEO and co-founder, afaqs!, raised this point during a panel discussion titled 'First Mover Disadvantage'. 

Khandekar pointed to the turbulent journey of the Indian aviation sector as an example. In 1990-91, the entry of private airlines in India began and Trivandrum-based East-West Airlines were the first to introduce flights. The airlines were followed by Jet Airways, Kingfisher, and a few other players as well. However, not many were able to survive the trials of time, including the first movers.

Indigo Airlines, which is the 11th airline to set up operations in India, now holds about 56 percent of the market space. "The term first mover advantage used all the time, but there's no certainty that being first guarantees success," he observed.

Does being the first mover ensure long-term market dominance?

While the Indian aviation industry has evolved considerably, the fitness sector in India remains in its infancy. Prerna Tirumalai, responsible for growth at cure.fit (cult.fit), described the initial challenges faced by the industry in 2016.

She says Cure.Fit overcame these hurdles by focusing on unique selling points (USPs) such as technology integration and building a recognisable brand. Tirumalai emphasised the need for continuous innovation to maintain consumer trust and market relevance.

"In our early days, we realised the importance of identifying our unique offerings. Pioneering a market is costly and demands a distinctive presence. We concentrated on elements that set us apart, like leveraging technology, the human touch, and building a recognizable brand, regardless of the location. However, competition in the fitness industry is complex, extending beyond national or international players; it's about local markets. Every neighborhood can become a battleground," she asserted.

Elaborating on the importance of innovation as a first mover, Isha Dhoble, VP- marketing and strategy, epigamia, says that yogurt wasn't traditionally considered a snacking option in India. Thus, epigamia faced the uphill task of explaining the concept of yogurt to Indian consumers initially. Overcoming this hurdle, they managed to create a market. However, Dhoble stressed the importance of maintaining the brand's uniqueness and not succumbing to market trends.

"Being a first mover means dealing with significant challenges, especially in customer acquisition. It's about creating penetration by convincing old distribution channels to carry a product that was never in the market before. It takes immense time, effort, energy, and investment to build a business that has no precedent. Looking back, there was literally no one in the yoghourt market when we started in 2015. Today, there's fierce competition, even from established names, but we've managed to carve our space in the industry," she emphasises. 

In a bid to carve this aforementioned space, Arjun Rastogi, co-founder, Naagin Sauce, highlights the constant need for first movers to stay ahead of the curve. He emphasises that being the first to enter a market eventually loses its significance, and it's more about being the best and continually evolving to meet customer needs.

"There's a saying: pioneers often face arrows in the back. It's true; being the first doesn't guarantee success. Being the best and continuously loved by people matters more. In the hot sauce industry, standing out was crucial. We introduced unique flavours to stay distinctive. Embracing failures and experimenting continuously were our strategies. We couldn't rest on being the first; we had to be the best," he asserts.

Shouvik Roy, who heads the brand marketing of brand aggregator firm GOAT Brand labs, highlights that throughout his career, he has witnessed both successful and unsuccessful first movers.

He says that there's no formula to maintain the first mover advantage but there is, however, a common thread in the businesses that failed. He feels innovative companies that are first movers stumble when they start replicating what others are doing in the space.

"When you enter a new market, you must maintain momentum by constantly evolving. Customers need to see you as a dynamic force, always introducing new elements. Stagnation is your enemy; it allows competitors to swiftly overtake you," he says.

As a brand aggregator, GOAT Brand Labs prefers investing in companies that have matured over 5 to 7 years. While first movers can be successful, Roy says the company has analysed their long-term success rather than their initial traction.

"Chumbak is a prime example; they ventured into an untapped category and faced challenges, especially post-COVID. However, their innovative approach and ability to stand out amid adversity underline the essence of pioneering spirit"

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