Is there are real advantage to being the first mover in a new category? Absolutely! The recent reversal by Garmin is a prime example.
Let’s set the stage. In May of 2000 the US Government turned off selective availability on the military initiated Global Positioning System (GPS). Prior to this change consumer GPS units were typically accurate in the 10-20m range. Instantly, consumer grade GPS devices were now accurate to within 3-4m and a new industry was born. It was at midnight May 2nd when Selective Availability was turned off and on May 3rd Dave Ulmer hid a container and posted the coordinates online. People started finding Dave’s container and within a month this activity had a name, geocaching. By September Geocaching had an online home at the geocaching.com website created by Jeremy Irish. This made Irish and his Groundspeak cofounders Bryan Roth and Elias Alvord first movers in the Geocaching arena.
Early GPS units were little more advanced compasses. Groundspeak, the company that owns the geocaching.com website worked with Garmin to add geocaching features to Garmin GPS units thus making them the defacto standard for the geocaching community. The relationship seemed to be going well until Garmin opted not to include the geocaching feature called Whereigo in its newest GPS receivers. In early 2010 Garmin introduced the GPSMAP 62 family of devices and the Whereigo feature was missing. This appears to have been the start of a change in direction for Garmin.
By December of 2010 Garmin had officially launched a website to compete with geocaching.com called opencaching.com. The geocaching community, about 2 million strong by this point, were excited by Garmin’s entry but not convinced it was for the better. There were features about opencaching.com that some people liked but it was missing one thing that the first mover in the space had – users. More than 80% of geocachers were using Garmin devices to find geocaches so it’s not surprising that Garmin would want to build a better relationship with those consumers. From 2010 onwards every new handheld GPS unit came with opencaching.com built into the device. There was talk that this would kill the geocaching.com website which charged a membership fee for premium access while opencaching.com was free. Garmin couldn’t have been more wrong.
At the time of the launch of opencaching.com there were in excess of 2 million caches listed on the geocaching.com website. People that enjoyed geocaching want to find geocaches. Some geocachers have found over 40,000 unique geocaches around the world. The need to find geocaches is what forced opencaching.com into oblivion. Groundspeak saw the early opportunity and moved first. Garmin lead the way in device construction but was playing catch up on the website side of things. Groundspeak’s lead was just too great and in August of 2015 opencaching.com is no more.
Garmin reported $2.8 billion in revenue in 2014. Groundspeak is a private company so revenues are not known but it’s safe to say the 50 employee company generates significantly less revenue than Garmin. Even with vastly superior spending power Garmin could not buy the one thing that mattered, website users. If you see an opportunity, seize it, if you are a first mover you just might become the first mover David to established industry Goliaths.
You can read more about this story here.