The Incrementally Resistant Middle: Or, "Why it took my dad so long to get call waiting."

Got this question by e-mail...

Does the sustainability of the
edge outweigh the opportunity in the mainstream audience? (e.g. IMO
there is an enormous opportunity for AJAX desktops—especially if the
web is the platform, but the existing ones don’t currently have a
sustainable model; Edgeio has a very sustainable model--
decentralization, but I’m not sure there is a lot of opportunity seeing
that they are cutting out the majority of internet users). The bigger
payout is clearly with the mainstream audience (MySpace, search, etc),
but there have been far more exits and successful businesses on the
edge. Ideally there should be an equal emphasis on both—but which is
more important?

My answer:

I
disagree with your assertion that there has been far more success on
the edge...    Just look at the big companies... they're the things
that everyone uses...  Google, AOL, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon.. etc...     I
don't really consider Writely flipping to Google a [huge] success.

I think we're looking at edge/mainstream the wrong way...

its about influencers and non-influencers...  and those groups happen to correspond to edge/mainstream.

So,
if you're building a startup, if all users have equal value, then its
all about cost and ease of acquisition.  Acquiring me means acquiring
5% of my friends and 2% of their friends and so on and so forth...
getting you closer and closer to mainstream, b/c I'm an influencer.
You acquire me by finding me where I am... and I tend to live more on
the edge than I do in the middle.... which means I'm actually easier to
find b/c I'm more flexible in my habits, more willing to try new
things, and appreciate that you've found me on the edge and you're
trying to make my life more efficient.

Acquiring my dad means
acquiring my dad and probably nobody else, because he's not an
influencer, and that's if you acquire him because he's in the
mainstream in his service usage, and not really looking to change.

The
problem is that there's many more of my dad then there are of me... and
every incremental customer, while easier to lock in b/c of network
effects, may naturally be harder to acquire because they're closer to
the mainstream and less of an early adopter.

Its like cell
phones.  When everyone has them, you'd think it would be that much
easier to acquire the next customer, but now you have to wonder... if
someone still doesn't have a cellphone, perhaps they're that much more
resistant to change than the next person.

Blogging... same
way..   I can't imagine not blogging now that I'm jacked into the
community now by doing it... but how do you then get anyone who isn't
blogging now to start blogging... its certainly a lot harder than it
was to get everyone who has been blogging already up and running.
You'd think there be more network effects or momentum there, but
there's also more friction the more you get towards the mainstream.