Thoughts on Taste

Originators vs imitators

August 24th, 2021

It’s amazing how many years have passed in the fast-moving industry of technology, but some trends never seem to die. Companies and people still seem to fall into 2 main camps: the originators and the imitators. Those that do the hard work of figuring out what people want, and the rest that look over their shoulders copying their work.

It’s not easy being an originator, at least not when you’re truly on to something instead of just a "spray and pray" random approach. I remember hearing a phrase once that captured it well, something along the lines of "the one blazing the trail has the most arrows in their back."

It’s just so much easier being a follower that sometimes it makes my blood boil. I have the same visceral reaction about Google today that SJ felt about Microsoft years ago - they have an institutional absence of perspective and judgement when it comes to new products and initiatives.

Oh sure, they’ve gotten better at refining the upper most layers of a product or service. To put it in the arcane jargon of software design - they’ve improved their UI skills but don’t mistake that for competent UX. The offending disease is even worse when you go a layer down and find that they completely lack that ineffable horse sense about what it takes to make a good product.

If this seems like painting with too broad a brushstroke, it’s inherent to their system. They’re fast followers and incremental improvers, not originators.

They’re not alone, there’s an entire ecosystem for that approach. Marc Benioff proudly described Salesforce as a fast follower, keeping a pulse on which consumer trends were worth copying into the business world.

But I know who I’d rather be, what kind of challenges inspire me, and how important it is to live an authentic life.

Let’s close on another zinger from Jobs that came years later:

I may not have liked him as a person or approved of all of his life choices, but I simply adore that Steve held grudges so passionately, even after his arch nemesis had settled into retirement and created a softer public persona.

As I sit here in middle age, rocketing towards my eventual senility, I can already tell that I'm going to be a similarly grouchy old man. And I'm already totally cool with it.