If we ask any well know brand who their major competitors are the answers are reasonably predictable. It’s those brands who have that other part of the market share pie. This is what we all got taught during marketing class, and it made sense in the AC Nielsen TV ratings market share industrial era. The problem is that it makes a lot less sense as we transition to the digital age. An age where incumbents are constantly being exposed on the flanks, rather than by direct competitors. If we went back and asked a number of industrial world businesses who their main competitors were, the story becomes much clearer:
Kodak: At first it was Fuji & Agfa, closely followed by Cannon and Nikon…. but really in the end their nemesis came from a different planet. The planet of Apple, Google, Instagram and Facebook. What is Facebook really other than a Kodak moment 2.0?
Encyclopedia Britannica: Clearly World Book and later Encarta, the CD ROM based delivery by Microsoft. But in the end it was you and me who provided more accurate data on the subject of ‘everything’ as we populated both Google and Wikipedia. We turned out to be more accurate, more timely and we came at everyone’s favourite price – free!
Free to Air Television: First became very worried about movie rental stores (VHS, DVD) followed by cable TV. While now their real worry is the other screens in the home as Netflix, Youtube and Pirate Bay eat their lunch.
There are of course an unlimited number of examples with the same story.
But the lessons in a period of technological transition are two fold.
Incumbents: If your company or brand is in a battle defending revenue and market share from industry players, you’re focusing on the wrong area.
Entrepreneurs: If you’re aiming to disrupt an industry that has intense and focused market share battles, you’re focusing on the right area.
Startup Blog says: In times of transition, it pays to look to the sides instead of straight ahead.
I’m starting to believe that the ultimate requirement for innovation is ignoring barriers. Not inventing rules that are not there. The second part of this thought is that we are trained over time to ‘assume the rule’ – when in actuality there is no rule.
I’ve been watching my daughter recently do little the things that I’m sure all kids do.
I play a game with my daughter where I show her how to stand on one leg. I don’t tell her what to do, I just stand on one leg…. and of course she wants to do it too because it looks like fun. And she copies me immediately. But because she has only recently learned to walk, she can’t quite manage it the way I do. So she without hesitation runs to the nearest wall, puts one hand against it to gain balance, and successfully stands on one leg. At this point she is very pleased with herself that she has managed to do it. Big smile ensues as she looks to me for approval…
And here’s the kicker… I am pleased with her too. But not in a kid like condescending way. I am seriously happy with her approach. And here’s why:
At no point was any rule given that you can’t lean against the wall. She hacked the system and got it done. I clap her and encourage her. In this instance it’s all about the objective, not the method. And the one thing I will never do is start to reduce her mind with rules that just aren’t there.
What we should do with our startup is innovate like kids do. Ignore how the bigger, more resource laden and older incumbents do things, and just hack for a result.
There’s been a lot of conjecture as to my post below – that ‘boring is profitable’. I’ve been inundated with tweets from people providing examples of exciting yet profitable companies. And yes, exciting can be profitable. But that wasn’t the point of the allegory. The point is that Boring is Stealth!
Stealth bombers are about being undetected. If you can’t be seen, you can’t be shot down. Pretty simple concept really. The equivalent of stealth in business is boring. Because boring stuff is invisible to the majority of consumers and entrepreneurs. Given the way we are ‘attacked in business’ is by competitors, then the best way to avoid competition – is by being invisible. Which for startups is much more probable than developing a monopoly through competitive barriers or brand loyalty.
Competition is eternally existential. We compete for love, money, attention, fame, wealth, recognition, and sometimes, we even compete for food. Turns out humans aren’t the only species who must to compete to survive. All living things must do it. Even trees in a deep forest compete for sunlight by growing as quickly as possible forgoing width for height.
What I find most interesting about competition is how we or any being chooses to do it. When a competitor catches us unaware, they usually achieve this through using some form of subterfuge. Like growing in a smaller segment of the market. Focusing on a neglected geography. And the really smart competitors disguise what they are doing so you don’t even see them coming. A little like Google has done to Microsoft who was overly focused on the ‘desktop’, while the world was moving to web app’s and gathering and storing of information externally.
I noticed this phenomenon first hand recently. My business was moving along swimmingly (which in this case is my tomato plantation). As you can see from the photo below. My Roma’s looked healthy and almost ready for the picking:
But upon closer inspection a competitor had been eating away at my market for quite a long time without me noticing. Once I turned around the tomato to inspect the back side of them – I was devastated to find my competition. They caught me napping and had a very big impact on my market share. As can be seen here:
How did they manage this?
- The caterpillar was smart enough to attack on the reverse side out of view.
- His color is exactly the same as the tomato proving an excellent camouflage.
- He waited till the market was already developed (by me) and the tomatoes had a reasonable size and were worth attacking – in this case risking his life over!
- In true terrorist fashion he penetrated the market at one entry point and ate it inside out. That is, the caterpillar was so deep inside the market, he was completely out of view.
None of this was by mistake. It has been driven by millennia of evolutionary survival and subsequent genetic coding. Nature is smart.
The implications for startups are many. When we start out to compete, the best thing we can do is replicate what nature does. Stay out of harms way. Stay small and unseen. Try and gain some momentum and size. If we’re lucky will have built our share of the market and be ensconced before anyone notices.
(FYI – I picked the tomatoes, and placed them in another location of the garden to let the caterpillars fight another day – they may just leave some seeds which will flourish next season!)
From a competitive viewpoint, imagine for a moment that our worst business nightmare came true.
Maybe Google decides to enter our market space. Or the Coca Cola Company launched a beverage with the same consumer benefit we’ve been bootstrapping. Or large company X decided to compete against “us” head on.
Well – you’d be surprised how that feels. How it makes us react, and how it very quickly changes our perspective on what is the most important element in ‘winning’. In competing effectively for our share of wallet.
All of a sudden many of the projects we are investing our time on seem far less important than they were yesterday. Maybe that front page redesign can wait, maybe the shiny new web 2.0 buttons are a little less important. Maybe our packaging will do for now and quite possibly every project we have on the agenda, excluding customer ‘centric projects’ can be put on hold.
Here’s an exercise worth doing with your team. Act as if. Act as if it has just happened. Have an ‘emergency session’ with your team on how you’d react if a more well resourced, financed and well known competitor came to play. Build your battle plan. Once your battle plan is drawn up – throw out your current business plan and work on that instead. Because they are coming, especially if your startup is in a fertile consumer territory.
After the intital fear, most entrepreneurs just get inspired, get angry and get on with it. A good scare never hurt anyone.
Steve – founder rentoid.com
Unless you are from the US – you have never even heard of any of the 10 oldest businesses in the USA. Nope, not one. There’s not a sexy brand among them. They include boring industries like, banking, ingredients, manufacturing inputs and insurance.
You can check it out by clicking here.
The important insight for Start Ups and investors is this:
The boring stuff is almost always more profitable than the sexy.
Why: Because exciting, sexy stuff attracts lot’s of competitors and people want to play there. They want to play there because it’s fun, it’s in the papers, it’s featured in business forums and leverages over-riding social trends. Then it gets busy and the cream disappears – (read here abnormal economic profits) . It’s no different to the house prices rising in popular suburbs and the yield declining. Simple economics discovered centuries ago.
So what? It’s vital we know the difference between sustainable & exciting. The most important factor for survivial is profit – end of story. Sure, profits can be made in any industry, but chances are there’s more profit in the areas everyone else forgot about.