The rush to be last

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(first published in British Baker)

Have you noticed there is never a rush to be first with an idea in this business? There are a few that try to be second, trying to emulate the company that has done the ground breaking work. Even more strive to be third, once a sense of a new market is felt. But there is always a sodding great mass of contenders trying to come last, after the market has matured and the downturn has begun.

I heard of a large bakery’s plans to develop this wonderful new bread, ciabatta. Yes, I’m talking about yesterday, not last year or last decade. Seems the management have caught on to this trend recently, and feel there is a growing market for ciabatta in this country.

Excuse me, where do some people look for ideas? I like to keep an eye on the competition, but like an athlete in a race, if I saw 200 people ahead of me running ahead of me I might begin to wonder if I should be in a different event. As for flavour variations, do you imagine Thai-style baps really invigorating the market?

By the time you can see visible evidence of market activity, it is too late to start up, too expensive to initiate and offers diminishing chance of a profitable return. Let’s say you do a tour of the supermarkets, look at what seems to be selling, and decide to organise the production of a similar product for your bakery.

After you’ve sourced the ingredients, recipes, equipment, researched the product development, packaged it, and sent it out with the sales force, you’re gonna need to cut your price to begin with. You’re too late to join in.

If you see a market situation where the vast majority of people are doing the same thing, then if they were right you would see them all getting richer. But if evidence and simple observation shows you they’re not, then you’re better off doing the reverse.

Once everybody is eating/wearing/doing the same thing, your bright competitor will be planning the next trend. Imitate the behaviour of excellent leaders – get out there and discover what people want, innovate and strive to be first.

As multiple customers look for manufacturers that can be ‘category captains’, they look beyond the sample products on offer and try and analyse whether the company has what it takes to create a partnership success in the future. Success will be dependant on your ability to predict new trends, create excellence, and deliver consistent quality at the right price.

You can succeed if you are brutally honest with yourself and your plans for the company. Don’t research for evidence to support your theories, but look instead for the faults. There is a great difference between being positive about the future of your company, and blind optimism that ignores evidence that demands you rethink your plan.

Oh, one last thing. I’ve heard that the trend for ‘category captains’ is already reversing. Seems one supermarket is already thinking of doing the opposite.

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