Recently, I joined a swim team. The pool where we practice has five lanes, and the speed of the swimmers goes up with the numbers. I swim in lane four, but sometimes, if I position myself just right, I am able to mimic, in shape and cadence, the arm strokes of whomever is swimming adjacent to me, in lane five. If I am vigilant, I can keep up; for a moment, I can feel what it is to be fast.
And then, inevitably, I'll miss a beat, and the lane fiver will zoom ahead.
Mimicry provides diversion, and it provides thrills, but ultimately, it's not productive. Everyone's body is built to move differently through the water, and what works for someone else will almost certainly not work, in the long run, for me.
I say "almost" for a reason. If I happened to have a large stable of resources at my disposal (boundless energy, exceptionally strong trapezoids, early and extensive ballet training), then I just might be able to coerce my stroke into becoming that of the lane fiver's.
In business, I think, it's the same deal.* Most companies can only keep up with the leader (provided they can keep up at all), for a few months. The big guys, as Matt Asay noted, are the only ones with the reserves necessary to outstay the leader, and eventually subsume him.
I am not saying "Jacob, go home," but rather, "Jacob, know thyself." The coattail game is appealing for its precedence (vanishing photos worked for Snapchat!) and, yes, its fleeting thrills ("and we're beating them in weekly downloads!"). But when it's over, there is only an ill-fitting framework and too-tight shoes.
These days, there's a new email app coming out every week, and it's easy to get mired in their feature sets, their press, their DAUs. We've been told we need more meat, or maybe more pickles, and it's easy, tempting to think that perhaps they're to be found in the features of our competitors.
Tempting, but not smart. We don't have the resources to copy everyones' best features, and anyways, we don't know how much they'd resonate with our target audience. A much smarter plan is to keep our heads (mostly) down, figure out where our team's strengths match up with the needs of our audience, and build.
We spent a number of months just talking to people about their email pain points, and fundamentally, we know that people don't hate email so much as they hate the time spent in it. Our mission is to reduce that time. So, instead of focusing on App X adding smart calendaring too, we need to focus on: will our idea for calendar integration actually save time, and also, how much of our time will developing it take?
Validating feature ideas against our mission is constraining. It can be hard and it's not very fun, but in the end, it's our best shot.
*I'm a little worried this is sounding like a Linkedin "thought" piece, and if so, I apologize, but I'm putting it down as much for myself as for anyone else who happens to read it.