In the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the slow and steady tortoise beats his braggadocious, floppy-eared competitor to the finish line. While simplistic, the message is universal and profound: a measured and careful approach brings about more success than careless speed.

But what if the hare did get the gold medal? In reality, your light-footed adversaries aren’t likely to take a nap mid-run. There will be times that they beat you to launch or to market. In other words, the “bad guy”  may come first, no matter how slow and steady your personal approach.

But just as animals don’t really go head to head on athletic ventures, Aesop's fable doesn’t totally encapsulate the nature of competition and winning. There are many adjacent lessons about healthy competition that are very much worth knowing, especially from a business perspective.

One of the truest? You don’t have to be first to win. Changing your mindset in this regard can lead to extraordinary benefits, and here’s why:

“Winning” isn’t cut and dry

When you have a race, coming in at #1 is a clear goal. But being the “best” is a vague goal to strive for because there’s no one way to win. Maybe your service, objectively, is the best on the market — but if your sales don’t reflect that, someone else has you beat. On sales, but not on quality, and not necessarily in the long run.

The point is, there are dozens of verifiable factors that measure performance: of an employee, of a company, of a product and so on. That’s not to say that everyone's a winner — not everyone gets a trophy for participation, or a trophy, period.

Life is more nuanced than a racing track, you see. Instead of one finish line, it’s a series of obstacles, with performance and success measured by all sorts of parameters. It also has no clear goal post.

Accomplishments, and the road to them, are unique and ongoing. So even though the metrics may vary, the best kind of winning is continuous.

Timing is important — but it isn’t everything

Howard Marks once said “Being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong.” He or she who comes first often runs this risk, and many a great company has launched a near-perfect product too soon to their own detriment.

Take social media for example. A site called Six Degrees came first, but even Myspace, the first popular social media platform didn’t have staying power. By most metrics, Facebook won and has managed to stay on top for over a decade.

Likewise, Napster was ahead of its time for music, Lycos for search engine popularity, Compuserve for email, and Webvan for same-day delivery.

That said, timing is far from the only factor an entrepreneur should consider. A competitor that reaches market first could flop due to poor marketing, an unsustainable model, bankruptcy, or be destroyed by bad press. By learning from their successes and mistakes and acting strategically, entrepreneurs can come out on top in many metrics: sales, longevity, reputation, and so on.

Respect your competition

When you think about it, the tortoise and the hare story really kind of gives rabbits a bad name. Contrary to the (fluffy) tale, speed and confidence absolutely have merit in the business world, and don’t necessarily correlate with underestimation of one’s competition.  

Because here’s the thing: Your competition isn't your enemy. You can, and should, respect and appreciate them and learn from them in order to succeed. Be inspired by the imperfect prototypes to create something even better.

But that means first and foremost paying attention. Business is all about context, and tunnel vision won’t get you far. To be a successful entrepreneur, you should be actively tuned into what your competitors are up to, what their strengths and successes are as well as their shortfalls.

You’re unlikely to create a operational, successful business model unless you know which potentially fatal flaws to avoid.

The first mover paves the road

The perils of moving first shouldn’t dissuade you from disrupting. Just know that by moving first, you are making things much easier for those that will follow and potentially surpass you

Not only is the road smoother for those that follow, you benefit from watching someone else’s test run from the sidelines first. Where did the trailblazer go wrong? Where are their weaknesses? As a competitor, what will my unique advantage be? What did their launch establish about the market that I can use to gain traction?

These are the kinds of questions many, many entrepreneurs ask themselves (because let’s face it, very few are actually “first”). I call this following to become a leader: watching the market develop and introducing an airtight business model when the time is right.

Because even if the hare beat the tortoise, I like to think the strength and toughness of his shell would have kept him plowing forward. And who knows? The hare’s paw prints could make for a useful roadmap to success for following reptiles and mammals alike.

About the Author(s)

Joel Landau Headshot

Joel Landau is the founder and chairman of The Allure Group, a rapidly expanding provider of skilled nursing and rehabilitation services throughout the New York downstate area.

Founder and Chairman, The Allure Group
You Don’t Have to Be First to Win