Why Give a Damn:

Learn how Mozilla turned Firefox into an unlikely success against all odds and how you can do the very same.

The author of this post, Pascal Finette, is Director, Office of the Chair at Mozilla. His focus is on expanding the scope of Mozilla into new constituencies and supporting Mozilla’s Chairperson with the ongoing work of modernizing Mozilla project governance structures, raising Mozilla’s visibility globally, and generally governing the Mozilla project.

Mozilla, the organization probably best known for producing the Firefox web browser, is a weird fish: A non-profit, public benefit organization which competes with some of the largest and most powerful technology powerhouses in the world. An organization that produces one of the most successful pieces of consumer software as open source; and, an organization that does all this by bringing volunteers from all around the world together to build, market, and support a product we are all deeply passionate about.

Some History
Mozilla has a colorful history – the short version reads something like this: In 1994 Netscape brought the world the web browser (and kicked off the first dot-com boom). Microsoft was late to the party – but by leveraging the Windows OS managed to essentially own the market after a few short years. Netscape decided to release the source code to the Netscape Communicator Internet Suite under an open source license in 1998. The Firefox project began as an experimental branch of the Mozilla project to overcome “Mozilla Suite’s software bloat”. Firefox 1.0 was released in 2004 and quickly became the browser of choice for a large audience. Today the Firefox web browser is used by roughly 25% of all Internet users and Mozilla continues to innovate in many new areas such as identity, web apps, and mobile phones.

Lessons learned
Mozilla’s story is a story of David versus Goliath – A story of an underdog operating in a fiercely competitive space with significantly fewer resources than the competitors. And this is what makes Mozilla’s lessons learned so valuable for entrepreneurs – in many ways Mozilla faced the same challenges that almost every startup faces day in and day out.

Here are some of the essential lessons we learned over the years (and which are particularly applicable for entrepreneurs):

Rule Number One (and Two): Superior Products Matter
If your aim is not to create something that is vastly superior, nobody will care. This is true enough for your employees, but it certainly is true for a community and your potential customers. Nobody wants to spend time and energy on something that is incrementally better, at best. When Mozilla created Firefox it revolutionized the way we browse the Web – many of these inventions are now common and standard across all browsers (tabs, the search box, pop-up blockers and many more). People don’t care about me-too products. They deeply care about people and things that change the world.

Communities are not Markets. Members are Citizen.
You can’t build a company today without building a community around it. Be it a user community, a developer community, or a community of people supporting your effort. You must understand that your community is not a market. It’s not something outside of your walls. People in your community are citizens. Treat them right, invite them in and you will become so much stronger. You are your community. Your community is you.

Drag your Opponent onto Thin Ice
Understand that your established competitor is the 500-pound gorilla in the room – they are frightening, strong and… heavy. Find ways to compete with them on the proverbial thin ice – Areas where they are not as strong or have a blind spot. Is their business model selling licenses? Try software as a service. Are they strong on iOS but don’t have a presence on Android? Find the weakness in their armor and focus your attack on their Achilles heal.

Be Fast
Have you heard about the mythical man month? The smaller you are, the faster you can be. Use this to your advantage and vigorously focus on speed. This is one of the key areas where you, as the incumbent, have a clear advantage over any established player.

Fight Dirty
You can’t afford to play by the rules. So don’t. Ignore what has been said, ignore what has been done, and find your own way. Write your own rules and fight. You have to realize that in a startup your fight is a fight for survival.

Eat the Bug
Here’s another advantage you have over any established player: You can do things differently…you are not bound by legacy systems and processes. You don’t have a culture of “that’s the way we have always done this”. You can eat the bug and do what’s best for your customer. So do it!

Polarize on Purpose
There is nothing worse than not being known for anything. You have to polarize, you have to find your niche, and you must be known for being the guys owning that niche. You can’t please everyone. Find your sweet spot and be controversial.

Relentless Focus and Boring Consistency
You have to find the main thing. Once you have it, make the main thing the main thing and execute the heck out of it. Businesses don’t succeed because they have the best ideas. They succeed because they execute best.

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.” Roger Bannister

With all that being said: Go, execute and be successful! And let us know how you’re doing.

An Unreasonable Challenge:

Look at your project/business/startup and identify who your community is. Include everyone touched by your project – users, collaborators, partners, friends. Now put yourself into their shoes – is your project treating them like citizens? Can they participate? And if so – is it easy? Can you make it easier? Find one core way someone from your community can contribute and make this pathway as easy as possible.

Update: I’ve given a talk based on the themes in this post numerous times since I first wrote these principles down. There is little I would change or add; I can just encourage you to try it out and become David in the battle against Goliath.

Pascal Finette

Author Pascal Finette

Pascal is the Managing Director of Singularity University's Startup Lab. He is also an entrepreneur, coach, and speaker who has worked in Internet powerhouses, such as eBay, Mozilla, and Google, and Venture Capital—starting both a VC firm and accelerator program.

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