How to compete against an incumbent: change the atomic unit (even in social)

Sarah Tavel
2 min readJan 18, 2023


I’ve written before that to compete against an incumbent marketplace, re-imagine the atomic unit.

I suspect the same is true in consumer social. Indeed, I’d guess you need four things to be true (besides magic!):

  1. A new atomic unit that resonates with large enough segment. It’s important than an incumbent that already has distribution doesn’t copy the atomic unit too quickly.
  2. A product that gets better the more someone uses it (both for themselves and the network).
  3. Some kind of distribution unlock.
  4. Incredible, rapid product iteration.

YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Snap, Pinterest, Discord, TikTok… all new atomic units. I’d even say BeReal introduced a new atomic unit, not with the front/back facing camera, but by having your photo act like a token to unlock your friends’ content.

There are a number of super talented product founders right now that are either going after Twitter (betting on its decay) or Google (betting on their political inability to integrate ChatGPT-like results into search). Both may be an opportunity, but trying to displace an incumbent with an atomic unit that smells too similar seems tough. The gravitational pull of both products’ existing network effect is just too strong. Neither TikTok nor ChatGPT look like Google, but both are keeping Google up at night. I’d wonder how to innovate on the core atomic unit.

On (3), right now it seems that if you are building a consumer product, you better have something people want to talk about on TikTok, and know how to maximize it.

Curious what you all think.



Sarah Tavel

native new yorker, SF-resident. general partner @benchmark. formerly product @Pinterest. originally blogging at