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I was sitting with the founders of a company we’ve funded the other day talking about their competition. I love this product and I use it every day. It doesn’t yet have widespread adoption, but it as extremely actively used by the early adopters.
This company has several competitors – long time incumbents with somewhat stale, but useful products, and several new competitors, including well-funded and noisy ones. I use several of these products regularly in different situations and have encouraged the founders to use them also.
During our conversation, we started off by talking about pricing and go-to-market strategies. As part of this, we were talking through a strategy to change the current game being played in the market, both from a product and pricing perspective. We had clarity on the product side (we have several fundamental architectural differences that enable a powerfully different approach at scale) but thrashed for a while on the pricing perspective.
I realized I wasn’t very clear on the pricing strategies of the competitors so we went through them on-line. While this was sort of useful, our knowledge of their products, how they work, and what the current limitations of them are was more enlightening. Ultimately the product differentiation drove the pricing differentiation discussion, which resulted in our hypothesis about how to change the game which we are now testing.
If we hadn’t all be active users of these competitors products, we would have had a stupid conversation. While we have limited visibility into the competitors’ product roadmaps, we know how hard it will be for them to change several dimensions of their products. Sure, we should assume they can and will do this, but as we enter the market in a serious way, I think we can carve out a unique and very significant position for ourselves by leading with the product differentiation and supporting it with a pricing strategy that undermines theirs. In the absence of the product information we have from our experience using their products, we wouldn’t have been able to tie these two constructs together, and our resulting approach would be weak.
My general approach to competition is to “obsess about their products while completely ignoring the company.” If you can identify competitors, use their products continually, if only to have that knowledge when the moment comes that you have the conversation about how you are going to change the game.
I recently received the following email.
I am in a bit of a dilemma and would really appreciate any insight you all have on what to do.
Last month, my team worked with a designer to create a new homepage for my startup. Yesterday, I saw that another company ripped off our entire site design. They have also just recently pivoted into doing exactly what we do.
You can compare the two sites here: Us Them a week ago Them now.
It doesn’t feel right that they can so brazenly steal someone else’s work like that. You would think they would have a reputation to uphold.
Anyway, my question for the group: How can we turn this negative into a positive for us?
My response was:
Welcome to the world. It sucks, but it happens all the time.
There are two approaches:
1. Ignore them and just kick their ass.
2. Make a big deal about it as a way to get more attention for you. Do this in a classy way. Don’t be whiny about it.
So you know, I generally choose option 1. I find that option 2 is very hard to execute and usually a distraction. But if you can do option 2 correctly, especially for a consumer service like yours, it can generate a lot of interest.
After a week or so, a draft blog post, and a little more back and forth the sender concluded:
For a quick update on this front, I think I did want the noise, to hopefully drive more awareness and because I was still kinda mad.
But, after putting it out of my mind for a few days and focusing on making progress on our product and marketing strategy, I feel calmer about the whole thing. Best case scenario we embarrass them – which doesn’t seem as fun anymore now that I’m not as actively mad – and get some sympathy and signups. Worst case scenario it backfires on us. Either way it’s a distraction and a lot of noise that isn’t really my style.
Our team is better, our technology more scalable, our wit sharper. They are right in some ways to make their site a cheap knockoff of ours – our site is great. But they’re fighting a losing battle. So I’m gonna go with option A of ignoring it and kicking their ass.
So yeah, your advice ended up being right on. Thanks for suggesting I sleep on it for a few days and again just for being responsive and helpful overall – it really did mean a lot.
I was proud of this person. The high road is always more fun, especially when you toss boulders down on the person on the low road and crush them before they make any progress toward the top of the mountain.
I’m mid 2011 I wrote a post titled Competition. Things in my universe had heated up and many of the companies I was an investor in were facing lots of competition. It’s 18 months later and there’s 10x the amount of competitive dynamics going on, some because of the maturity, scale, and market leadership of some of the companies I’m an investor in; some because of the increased number of companies in each market segment, and some based on the heat and intensity of our business right now.
I wrote a few more posts about competition but then drifted on to other things. But I came back to it this morning as I find myself thinking about competition every day. Yesterday, I was at the Silicon Flatirons Broadband Migration Conference hosted by my friend Phil Weiser. I go every year because it’s a good chance for me to see how several of the parallel universes I interact with, namely government, academics, broadband and mobile carriers, incumbent technology providers, and policy people think about innovation in the context of the Internet.
News flash – most of them think about it very differently than I do.
One thing that came up was the idea of creating the best product. This has been an on and off cliche in the tech business for a long time. For periods of time, people get obsessed about how “the best product will win.” Then, some strategy consultants, or larger incumbents, use their market power to try to create defenses around innovation, and suddenly the conversation shifts away from “build the best product.” And then the entrepreneurial cycle heats up again and the battle cry of the new entrepreneur is “build the best product.”
This isn’t just a startup vs. big company issue. I remember clearly, with amazement, the first time I got my hands on an iPhone. Up to that point I was using an HTC Dash running Windows Mobile 6.5. It was fine, but not awesome. I remember Steve Ballmer in a video mocking the iPhone.
We all know how this story has played out.
I remember a world when Microsoft and RIM were dominant. When Apple and Google didn’t have a product. And when people talked about “handsets”, WAP, and we squinted at our screens while pounding on keyboards that were too small for our fingers. Next time you are in a room full of people, just look around at the different phones, tables, and laptops that you see.
In my startup world, the same dynamics play out. Building the “best product” doesn’t only mean the best physical product (or digital product). It doesn’t just mean the best UI. Or the best UX. It includes the best distribution. The best supply chain. The best customer experience. The best support. The best partner channel. The best interface to a prospective customer. I’m sure I’ve left categories out – think about the idea of “the best complete product.”
This is getting more complicated by the day as technologies and products increase in interoperability with each other at both the data, network, application, and physical level. That’s part of the fun of it. And being great at it can help you dominate your competition.
Give me the best product to work with any day of the week. But make sure you are defining “product” correctly.
Six months ago I wrote a post about how I think about competition which included a list of topics that summarizes my philosophy. I covered the first item, Be The First Mover, but then went on to other things, like thinking about competitors every single day. I’m back today with the second topic, “Resegment If You Aren’t In The Top Three.”
If you look at the Foundry Group portfolio, you’ll notice a lot of market leaders. Zynga is the obvious one, but I’ll assert that there are many others, including AdMeld (now part of Google), Cheezburger, Fitbit, Gnip, Makerbot, Oblong, SendGrid, Topspin, Trada, and Urban Airship. After that there is a category of companies who might be market leaders, but it’s too early to tell as they are still very young. And, if you look at some of the successful companies we have had from our previous investing at Mobius Venture Capital, you’d see market leaders like Postini, Return Path, FeedBurner, Rally, Stratify, NewsGator, and Sling Media.
An important nuance is that these companies weren’t unambiguously market leaders when they got started. While some of them created entirely new markets, others entered into existing markets. In some cases, there were only a few players as the markets were new. In other cases, they took the existing market and resegmented it.
Existing markets are wonderful places to go play in especially if they are expanding rapidly. Entrepreneurs are drawn to fast growing markets, which is awesome, but there are many who I see that are simply trying to play a fast follower game. I’ve been there, having invested in “company #17 in a market.” Unless you get lucky, that generally sucks.
I’ve developed a viewpoint that if you aren’t in the top three in your market segment, you should “resegment.” Step back and redefine the market segment you are going after. Change the customer, change a product focus, change the distribution channel, or change the partner dynamic. Sometimes it’s a tweak, other times it’s more radical. But change something so that you are in the top three of the “new market”.
Don’t bullshit yourself about this. I’ve been the investor in many companies who weren’t in the top three that were going to get there with the next release, or a new sales VP, or something exogenous that would happen to the existing market leaders, or a magic trick that no one had thought of yet. This is almost always a losing strategy. Don’t count on luck. Resegment.
Many of the companies that we invest in are the leaders in their respective markets. Often they create the market. Sometimes they appear out of no where and dominate. And sometimes they are in a brutal fight every day with another company or two for market leadership. We don’t care which case it is – we just want to be investors in the companies that are #1 or #2 (and have a chance to be #1) in their markets.
Jack Welch taught us the power of being #1 or #2 in your market many years ago and the VC business reinforces that over and over and over again with relative exit values. The VC cliche is that the market leader gets 50% of the value, #2 gets 25% of the value, #3 gets 10% of the value, and #4 through #263 get the remaining 15%. While these numbers move around (I’ve been in situations where #1 got 90% and in situations where I got lucky and #17 got 25%) they are directionally correct.
Whenever a market leader I’m an investor in is threatened by a competitor, I’ve encouraged them to call a Code Red like they do on ER. In a Code Red situation, every who can is focused on the threat for a short, intense period of time. If the company is less than 10 people, this is easy. But if it is 50 people or more, it’s really hard. And – at 1000+ people, it’s a magic trick to get it right.
When the CEO calls a Code Red, there is often a negative reaction from parts of the organization ranging from sales, development, to operations. Often some people in the organization don’t believe or understand the need for a Code Red. Other times they’ve been through so many unnecessary fire drills in other companies that they don’t believe the Code Red is real. They simply don’t see the same threat the CEO sees. Or they feel undermined by the CEO.
Part of the CEO’s job is to call a Code Red correctly. If you call it every other week, it’s not a Code Red, it’s shitty management and leadership. If you never call it, you’ll one day find yourself no longer the market leader. There’s no right tempo – it’s random, but as with many things you’ll know the moment when you encounter it.
A Code Red can’t last forever. It has to be incredibly focused on the specific threat you trying to address. It has to be clearly communicated across the entire company. It has to be quantitative – once you’ve effectively neutralized the threat, the Code Red is over. This might be in an hour, a day, a week, or a month. But if it lasts much longer than a month, something else is wrong.
I know some people who like to use DEFCON 1 instead of Code Red. I don’t – it’s too nuanced – who cares about the difference between DEFCON 3 and DEFCON 1 – you are in a critical situation. Make it binary.
I know some managers who hate the idea of ever being in a Code Red situation. This is unrealistic view to take in a startup or fast growing company. Once you are a visible leader, people will be gunning for you, imitating you, or coming out with products that disrupt your business. Welcome to being a market leader – own it and when a Code Red occurs use it to propel your business into an even more dominant leadership position to build on. And – for every employee in a company having a Code Red – take it seriously and crush it – the rewards will be quick and obvious and the downside of not dealing with it sucks.