There’s something special about firsts. They’re often the ones we honor and hold in high esteem—Kleenex was the first facial tissue, and now the brand is a household name. Amazon, the first online bookstore, is now typically our first stop for any ecommerce product. Firsts enjoy an early advantage while others race to catch up.
Then there are the companies that weren’t exactly first but have gone on to uproot their predecessors. Zoom wasn’t the first to offer a video conferencing service. Google wasn’t the first search engine. Microsoft didn’t invent spreadsheet programs, but today almost no one talks about Lotus 1-2-3. The world usually pooh-poohs the fast follower for lack of originality. Yet in certain moments, being a follower is exactly the position where you want to be.
Take Threads, Meta’s new social media platform. In early July, it burst onto the scene as a competitor to Twitter. Cue the critics who say it’s nothing more than a copycat of Twitter (along with Elon Musk’s lawsuit that argues the same). However, Threads was not exactly a fast follower—the first tweet was sent 17 years ago—yet they still somehow managed to attract 100 million users in five days.
In this case, Meta took advantage of a moment of instability inside Twitter as well as a shift in external factors and was ready to pounce. To succeed as a follower, fast or slow, take heed of Threads’ two strategic moves and timely decision to act.
Two stratagems at play
At Outthinker, we’ve been studying a centuries-old Chinese text on 36 strategic patterns that can still be applied by companies today in creating cutting-edge strategies. Meta’s affront to Twitter calls to mind two specific and game-changing stratagems. Learning from them can provide guidance to any fast (or slow) follower:
Watch the fire from the other shore
The first is Stratagem 9, “Watch the fire from the other shore.” When a conflict breaks out within the enemy alliance, don’t be too hasty to join in. Instead, wait patiently for chaos to build. Meta waited for the conflict within Twitter to intensity, observing layoffs, instability, and customer dissatisfaction. With Threads, they seized the right moment to strike. Companies that temper power with patience will be more competitive in the long run.
To catch something, first let it go
For slower followers, Stratagem 16 may be useful: “To catch something, first let it go.” The story of this stratagem describes a general who is asked to put down a rebellion. The general has the power to subdue the rebels, but he knows their defeat would not lead to lasting peace. Instead, he chooses to fight the rebel leader, capture him, let him go, fight and capture him again, and let him go again. He repeats this process seven times until the rebel, exhausted, accepts being governed by the kingdom. Instead of chasing closely behind a rival, choose to wait. When your enemy is exhausted, attack. Twitter launched in 2006; Threads successfully launched in 2023.
These Chinese stratagems tell us patience is key, but we’ll look to the Greeks to tell us the right time to act.
Choose the time for action: chronos vs. kairos
The Ancient Greeks had two distinct words for time: chronos, the “clock time” which places events in an order with specific amounts of time separating them like hours or days or years, and kairos, the qualitative, anachronistic measure of time that uses moments to determine when something will occur. Chronos says, “I will launch my new venture on July 31, 2023.” Kairos says, “I will launch my new venture if and when X, Y, and Z prove to be true.” For a follower, using the kairotic definition of time is key.
For Meta and Threads, there were a few moments that came together to position the opportunity for launch. Twitter has been in a period of instability, including Musk’s purchase of the company and the subsequent layoffs of about 80% of its workforce. The platform has been criticized for an increase in hate speech. Then the first week in July, Musk decided to limit free users to viewing only 600 posts per day. Under those conditions, Meta launched Threads early.
One additional opportunity Threads took advantage of is a trend we’ve been watching for a while: a shift to a decentralized internet where users can bring their data and information between platforms. Threads is built upon this feature. With this shift in customer preferences and volatility within Twitter, Meta jumped on the kairos moment.
In the Western business mindset, we often assume the world won’t change unless we act. Eastern philosophy is different—it recognizes that the world is constantly changing and knows we can influence change with minimal effort. Had Meta measured time by chronos, Threads might still be awaiting release. But when factors aligned in kairos, Meta was well-positioned to launch.
Both companies are highly innovative and intrapreneurial—we’ll see which moment wins out when it comes to Tweets or Threads. But if you’re an aspiring fast follower, select your kairos moments (“We’ll be prepared to launch when X, Y, and Z are true”), then when those moments align, be ready to pounce.