Innovators, Imitators, and Idiots

Posted 5 years ago by Michael Estrin

There’s a quote I’ve heard some people attribute to Warren Buffet and others attribute to Mark Cuban. I’m not sure of the origins, but I’ve heard plenty of people say it without any attribution at all.

First come the innovators, who see opportunities that others don’t.

Then come the imitators, who copy what the innovators have done.

And then come the idiots, whose avarice undoes the very innovations they are trying to use to get rich.

A few years ago, comedian Louis CK turned the comedy world upside down by self-distributing his special direct to consumers and charging $5. Turns out it worked, earning $1 million in 12 days.

Cue the imitators.

Doug Benson, another comic with a very different routine, is doing something similar. Here’s how Cynopsis characterized Benson’s deal to stream his latest movie with

Benson’s decision to release the movie directly to fans – a strategy that’s becoming quite commonplace within the comedy world- allows him to retain full ownership of the content. He will also be able to offer “bundles” that include merchandise, t-shirts, and other goods along with the documentary.

Of course, it’s not just comedy. Late last year, Fast Company picked up on the trend and offered some advice on self-distributing video.

I’d also like to offer some advice.


That is, don’t unless you have a platform.

What’s a platform?

A platform is anything that can give you built-in audience.

For CK, that platform was his fan base. I don’t know what the numbers were behind CK’s website before he did the self-distribution thing, but I’d be shocked if he fronted the costs of production without at least asking how many fans he really thought he could count on to buy the show and spread the word.

Benson, by the way, does have a platform. But it’s much more niche, which is why partnering with Chill makes a little more sense.

Of course, a platform doesn’t have to be a streaming service or a fan base. It can be an idea. In a sense, this is a platform:

Memes are platforms too. But the trouble with memes is that they’re a common currency, which means that if you use them as your platform, it won’t last very long because a good meme is always hijacked.

Does your brand have a platform?

If you’re brand is thinking like a publisher, or thinking about what it would mean to think like a publisher, there’s a good chance that at least some of the media you produce will be self-distributed. In a few rare cases the brands fans probably will spread the word. But more often than not, the media will sink like a stone.


No platform.

But here’s the catch: you can’t just will a platform into existence.

Media buying has taught brands that you can buy platforms. But if you’re not buying media, where will your platform come from?

I don’t know the answer to that one. But I do know that you had better think of something innovative, because the imitator never gets as much upside, and it’s only a matter of time before the idiots arrive.