Yesterday I wrote about how to talk to investors about your competitors. In short, acknowledge they exist, be transparent about strengths & weaknesses and use your differences to talk about how you want to position yourself in the market.
But more important than how you talk about them, how should you actually treat your competitors?
Conventional wisdom in most companies is that “the competition is the enemy” – it’s the rallying cry to dig deeper, get more features out the door, issue press releases citing differences and attack the competition’s weaknesses in sales presentations. I understand this instinct – it’s tribal, like rooting for sports teams. And there are actually some benefits to having something that galvanizes your team.
But many startups take this too far and I would actually encourage a dose of enemy & friend. You know, frenemies. A healthy respect for your competition will serve you well. Here’s some thoughts on how to manage the tricky frenemy relationships.
When Enemies are Good
1. Marketing Differentiation – Salesforce.com is one of the most effective marketing organisations in the world because Marc Benioff is a genius at marketing. He has been able to take complicated topics like cloud computing and boil them down into pithy messages like “the end of software” as depicted in the simple logo to the right. It emphasises both cloud computing and salesforce.com’s differentiation – they’re not “software.”
Of course they’re software. It’s just delivered in a different way. But this simple logo of differentiation was what they used in the early days to symbolise their fight against Siebel. Siebel was something you installed: it was expensive, hard to implement, bloated, complex and hard to manage. Software. And after Siebel’s death the Salesforce rallying cry has extended to Oracle and Microsoft.
Software, software, software. Them vs. Us. And in a world where complex ideas are hard to mass markets to synthesize, the simplicity of the message, the differentiation & who is good vs. evil helps journalists, market analysts & customers.
2. No Enemies, No Market – The first instinct of a journalist when they hear your story is to reach for the “compare & contrast” story. No journalist wants to publish your press release or print what you tell them verbatim without saying, “while this new company is plotting a brave new world, but there are some storm clouds. Their competitors have already made some progress – here’s what they do and why it won’t be a one-horse race.” It’s almost a requirement of journalism – in part because that’s also what readers want. It’s why we all love the “horse race” stories of every election cycle despite people lamenting this and wanting journalists to just cover the issues.
The first instinct of a potential customer who is thinking about your product is to find out who else does what you do to be sure they’re not about to purchase a Betamax. In fact, most big enterprise buyers have procurement policies that require them to have considered a few competing products – in part to be sure there isn’t a cozy insider sales relationship driving the purchase.
And as I talked about in my “talking to VCs about your competition” post, the first instinct of a VC is no different. We don’t want to be the person who invested in your company only to find out later there was a much better team and/or product in the market. Or that we’ve invested in a company where there is no market demand.
We’re all basically trying to validate the same thing in looking for competition. We know that you’re done a great job in telling us why your product is really innovative and cool – now we’re just trying to convince ourselves whether there is a real market out there for it and if there is whether you’re going to win.
3. Galvanizing the Company – And of course one of the biggest benefits of enemies is galvanizing the company. We all know that the existence of startups is all about limited resources, huge time pressures and a constant struggle to time market adoption and investor financing.
So when you need your engineering team to dig deeper and crank out code despite working “yet another weekend” it helps to have the Evil Empire. If you’re sales & marketing teams are spending yet another few days away from home (or stuck in an airport on a February trip to Chicago) it helps to have somebody you’re trying to beat to make it all worth its while.
I’m not a sociologist but I’m certain that there’s a tribal instinct involved.
When Frenemies are Better
Yet keeping our competition as only enemies is a mistake.
In the early days at my first startup I purely demonized competitors. They were stupid, evil and about to suffer a crushing death. They never did. Instead, every time we launched new features they seemed to launch similar features 2 weeks later. They must have been working on them at the exact same time. Funny that. Turns out it’s how innovation tends to work – in parallel. When the market was booming we were all booming, when the market struggled we all struggled.
And when it struggled we all talked. We mostly talked because we thought industry consolidation was going to take place and we didn’t want to be the ones who were left out. As I’ve talked about before – early mergers are mostly dumb, but we didn’t know that back then. Most of us never merged but through the process I got to know the founding teams of all of my competitors and I realised – of course – that they were smart, well informed and decent people.
I also learned that we had way more in common with each other than I had thought. We had way more to gain from occasional discussions than to lose. In a startup market the biggest competition is inertia – not your enemy. In a startup market getting potential customers to take any action at all is the hardest thing you face.
We talked about why customers were slow to adopt (cloud computing was really early and most people had security concerns), we talked about how hard it was to raise money (2002/03), we talked about some of the tech challenges we were facing (AJAX didn’t exist yet, browsers were really bad) and, of course, we talked about other competition. These meetings were my best source of what our nascent market was REALLY up to (not the tech press version of it).
In the end, most importantly, we created a communication channel that was invaluable at times. We didn’t collude (e.g. talk about prices), we collaborated. I didn’t openly discuss meeting competitors broadly within my company. I didn’t want everybody worried or gossiping that there might be an imminent merger and internally it was fun to be able to demonize the competition just a little bit
Every now & then our competitors would talk trash about us at a customer meeting (we’d often get the feedback) or put out a press story that was trying to poke us in the eye. We’d fight back with the same. But in the end after meeting them I knew it was “just business.” They were pretty normal guys.
When the Enemy Mentality Harms You
And there’s a more destructive side to over-demonizing the competition: You start to believe your own internal hype. I often meet startup companies who come in vilifying their competition telling me stories about how bad they are at this or that. As a VC you often have met with some of these companies and realise they aren’t as bad as the company in front of you is saying (or thinking).
I always advise these overly aggressive companies the same thing:
- don’t take your competitors for granted. they’re probably much better / stronger than you think
- if your competitor is a big company, don’t be lulled into thinking they’re just “stupid” – they often have internal structural problems that keep them from effectively competing with you (even when they see the market clearly)
- whenever you’re thinking “our competitor does a, b, c and ONLY WE do d, e, f” you’re often wrong. It’s usually one of two cases: 1) you didn’t realise that your competitor really does to d, e, f or 2) they’ve been working on d, e, f and just haven’t released it yet or announced it. But they showed us. Remember: innovation happens as a parallel process – you rarely will have anything that’s TRULY unique. Victory is often about better execution.
- the best internal motivation for your company is to always be paranoid about your competition. I’m not saying to overly focus on them – I don’t believe that. I think you focus on your customers & market. But be paranoid about how good the competition is. Use this as a motivator to drive yourself harder.
- and finally, it is unbecoming of you to belittle your competition in front of us or in front of customers. You look a far bigger person when you show a healthy (and not artificial) respect for them. It’s true that Marc Benioff gets away with “slagging off” the competition but very few get away with this. And even Marc only gets away with it because of his extreme success. In stead people still cringe, shake their heads, have a small chuckle and say to themselves, “that’s just Marc.”
In the end, keeping frenemies will serve you well.
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