Table Stakes Are Dangerous

Much has already been written about Twitter and Flickr’s recent forays into photo filters. In particular, my friend MG wrote today that adding filters to Twitter and Flickr is a misguided attempt to catch up to Instagram:

But let’s not beat around the bush: both Flickr and Twitter have rolled out these updates thinking filters will somehow make them more competitive with Instagram. These are purely reactive moves that show a fundamental misunderstanding of why Instagram is what it is.

To add some color here, I’d guess that the addition of filters to Twitter and Flickr (and every new photo app that launches) is a result of believing they are table stakes for mobile photos. Launch without them, and your photo-taking app starts off at an immediate disadvantage. For Twitter and Flickr, filters must seem like a base requirement if they want to have a hope of converting Instagram users, who have already come to expect photo filters as a core feature.

In my career I’ve been in dozens of meetings where the term “table stakes” gets dropped in. Maybe it’s by a designer defending what they feel is a non-negotiable element of the user experience. Maybe it’s a PM trying to keep the product feeling relatable. I’ve even heard the term batted around by engineers who are thinking about how the feature relates to the rest of what they’re building.

Whatever the reason, time and again I see that term win arguments. You say “table stakes” and everyone stops and nods because, hell, it’s usually true. It seems pretty obvious that launching an app without photo filters means you’re at a competitive disadvantage. I’ve also heard this term referred to as the back-of-the-box comparison. If someone held up your feature bullet points and compared them to your competitor, what points don’t you match up against?

The problem, as MG points out, is that focusing on table stakes isn’t how innovation happens. Can you imagine if Instagram had tried to match Flickr feature-for-feature? 30 second videos, albums, collections, tag clouds, groups. Arguably, at the time Instagram launched, these features would have been considered table stakes by most people building photo competitors. It would have been easy to assume (and hard to argue against) that without these features, your fledgling photos product would be crushed by the well-established and feature-rich Flickr.

The reason Instagram won (and continues to win) is because they didn’t base their product on table stakes. They didn’t use their competitors as a baseline. They didn’t battle with Flickr, or Twitter, or even Facebook. The reason Instagram is succeeding (and by all accounts winning) is the same reason every majorly successful startup ever wins:

They started playing an entirely different game altogether.

What is your startup doing?


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