Right Idea, Wrong Time: The Companies Whose Innovative Products Arrived Too Early

21 December, 2021 

It can take a long time for a new product to successfully take off. Years can go by between the genesis of a new product and it actually catching on in the market. Innovative companies do not always achieve commercial success. 

In this list we run down companies who had great products or ideas that were before their time. Whether that was down to the infrastructure at the time, or market conditions. 

Second Life

The metaverse wasn’t made up by Mark Zuckerberg. Before Facebook was even founded, Second Life was providing an immersive space for its users, where they could socialise, create, and shop.

The company was founded in 2003 by Linden Labs. Linden Labs are adamant that Second Life is not a game but rather a “pioneering virtual world”. In 2013, Second Life reported that it had one million users. In the eight years since growth has slowed considerably for the website, with new accounts plateauing. In 2018, it was reported that active users are now around half that figure at 500,000 to 600,000 users. 

Despite the slowing of growth for Second Life, the platform generated a lot of discussion just weeks ago, after Facebook’s rebrand to “Meta” was announced. “Second Life” ended up trending on Twitter, with users discussing how the company pioneered a metaverse-like experience almost two decades before Meta took shape. 

As one user, Chris Bakke tweeted: “I think about Second Life once a week. In 2003 they were doing metaverse + online currency + marketplace of online goods + virtual real estate + avatars + anon accounts + massive multiplayer games. Market timing is really, really important”. 

Vine

Before TikTok there was Vine. The short-form video site was founded in 2012 and shut down in 2017. While Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube all now have short-form video, in 2012 Vine was really a pioneer of the format. 

The short-form videos inspired a whole generation of creators to work within the constraints of the six-second video. The limited format produced internet greats such as “Look at all those chickens” and “it’s Wednesday my dudes”. 

However, it was perhaps the reluctance to deviate away from the six-second format that caused its untimely demise. It wasn’t until 2016 that Vine increased the time that videos on the platform could be, and by that point many of its creators had fled to its competitors that had quickly sprung up. 

The company was also plagued by executive churn. Vine was acquired by Twitter in 2012. Upon the company’s shutdown in 2016, founder Rus Yusupov (who was laid off by Twitter the year prior) simply tweeted: “Don’t sell your company!”. 

Brainient

Brainient specialised in creating interactive video experiences. The company pioneered some innovative formats, before being acquired by Teads in 2016. 

Jonathan Lewis was commercial director at Brainient, and now is global head of Teeds Studio, the part of Teeds that the acquired company was integrated into. He cites shoppable video as being one of the areas where Brainient was an early pioneer. 

“We were early to shoppable, I still see articles about people launching shoppable and talking about how shoppable is the future,” Lewis said, “There’s different ways of doing it, but the genesis of making a video shoppable in one way or another has been around forever and it’s something that we’ve been doing for a long time.”

Brainient also introduced other innovative formats, one example of this was gesture-based interactive CTV on Xbox Kinect. 

“We were way too early for that one,” Lewis admits, “But then again, the expectation was there that it was a showpiece rather than anything else. It was a door opener and a conversation starter. And you might start talking about gesture based interactive TV on CTV. But then you end up building a relationship on interactive video on mobile, for example.”

Jonathan Lewis cites lack of standards and operability of two key reasons why innovative products don’t always take off in the market. 

“With interactive video, you have to wait for the IAB to make some sort of standard. There’s also so many walled gardens, it’s difficult to build something and be able to scale it across. So if you invest in building something, and then you can only scale it on one platform, that platform might give you a lot of scale, but you can’t take it out of that platform,” he said. 

Blippar

Unlike many of the companies on this list Blippar has had something of a revival after it all went pear-shaped at the company in 2018. Blippar is an augmented reality content creation company, founded in 2011. 

It was one of the UK’s first tech “unicorn” companies, and pioneered AR technology. They produced products such as an app where you could point a phone at a real-world object, and have it identified; kind of like a Shazam for objects in real-life. 

In 2011, the infrastructure for the kind of smart augmented reality things that Blippar was doing was not necessarily there. The general population didn’t have mobiles that were smart enough to support AR and people were widely using 3G rather than 4G or 5G. 

At its height the company said it was worth $1.5 billion, but it collapsed into administration in 2018. The company went into administration in 2018 after early investors pulled out and it failed to put together a rescue deal. However, 2018 was not actually the end for Blippar, the company has returned with a largely B2B offering. In March of this year it raised $5 million in a new funding round. 

Yieldex

Founded in 2007, Yieldex provided forecasting, analytics and sales management tools for publishers. Among its products was Yieldex Direct, which helped publishers to handle direct programmatic sales to agencies and marketers. As of 2015, 20 publishers used Yieldex Direct exclusively to manage their automated direct deals. 

Yieldex counted big names like The New York Times, Experian and Univision among its customers. The potential in the company was clearly spotted by AppNexus who acquired the company in March 2015. The acquisition cost AppNexus a rumoured $100 million, although the companies themselves never confirmed the financial specifics of the deal. 

At the time of the acquisition, Yieldex’s CEO Andy Nibley commented, “We think it’s the beginning of a tsunami of activity in automated guaranteed and other programmatic direct channels.” Nibley and Yieldex were right to throw their weight behind programmatic guarantee deals. By 2018, eMarketer was forecasting that 58 percent of programmatic display spend in the US would be made up of programmatic guaranteed deals. 

Acquirer AppNexus was later itself bought by AT&T and folded into Xandr. 

Project Kangaroo

Project Kangaroo was a proposed collaboration between ITV, BBC Worldwide and Channel 4. It would have seen the British broadcasters come together to pursue a joint streaming venture. 

However, Project Kangaroo was blocked by the Competition Commission before it could even get started. 

“We have decided that this joint venture would be too much of a threat to competition in this developing market and has to be stopped,” said Peter Freeman, the chairman of the Competition Commission, announcing the decision in 2009. 

Despite the Competition Commission’s fears that the BVOD services would dominate the nascent streaming market, it has been the broadcasters who have been playing catch up with US giants like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+. 

Since Project Kangaroo was blocked, the UK broadcasters have pursued some joint projects, including SVOD service BritBox and, reportedly, a joint streaming service. 

Henry Rivero worked on the project with the BBC from 2007 as a technical architect. He says these joint ventures face many obstacles to cooperation, which could have been addressed much earlier had Project Kangaroo been allowed to proceed.

“There are still questions about how further cooperation can take place. Those questions are something we could have addressed way back. With a lot of these technical-based problems, such as synergies and interim interoperability between the platforms, we would be much more mature in how we address those,” he said, “There’s still a very fragmented local media space that makes it hard to compete with the likes of Netflix.”

Rivero added that as the years went by the emphasis switched to building a brand for the BBC’s iPlayer service rather than working on a joint venture. 

“[The BVOD services] have very distinct brands and strategies going on. They’ve grown in separate directions, and their directions are perhaps not as aligned as they could have been if we had worked on it close to the beginning,” he said. 

2021-12-17T14:58:35+01:00

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