It’s easy to get distracted by your competitors. When you’re in an emerging space in particular, you constantly feel the strain of every success that your competitors have. Your instinct is to prevent this by knowing what your competitors are up to and then beat or match them on all fronts so that they no longer have an advantage over you.
Unfortunately, this never works.
If you’re chasing the competition you’ll never pass them – by definition really. How can you ever beat the competition if you’re always just trying to match or beat them at their own game? In the end this will stress the team and you’ll always be #2 (or worse) in your space. Not a good solution…
So what should you do about competition? Ignore them. Ignore them as much as possible. Ultimately you should listen to your user base to determine the direction you should take, not your competition. In some cases your users will tell you that they want a feature your competitor has…great! Give it to them. The key thing though is that you only provide them with the features they ask for. In a weird way this actually makes you more efficient because if your competitors come up with a really great feature you’re still aware of it and can integrate some version of it into your own product(s). On the other hand though, if they waste their time on a feature that turns out to be a flop, you never need to worry about it (since presumably your users won’t push for this) and you don’t have to waste the resources to develop the stuff that didn’t work out.
The average guy at your startup should not be worrying about what the competition is up to. Instead it is important to foster an environment of internal competition and support – encouraging your team to excel by a little friendly competition between the ranks. Also, competition against yourself is important. Tracking performance, making goals, and following progress over time all help to push people a little bit futher and keep people performing at their peek.
Ultimately, this is not so black and white though. It’s important for the people at the planning/strategy level to have some idea where the market is going and what the competition is doing in order to best take advantage of your opportunities. The key thing here is to not get boxed in to competing at your competitors game, but instead to change the rules and compete in the game that you have the advantage in. For instance, if your competitors have considerably more development resources at their disposal than you do then you shouldn’t compete on a feature level. You’ll never be able to keep up and beat them to the punch line on key features – and on the off chance you do, they’ll be able to “catch up” quickly, and the advantage will end up being trivial. A better solution would be to find the area that you have the advantage in and make that the playing field. For example, if you have strong business development skills and connections, then make the game all about distribution. Play up the deals you make and make a point throughout your site/blog/company culture that you’re all about distribution and playing with the big guys. On sales calls really key into the distribution you have and (if it comes up) downplay trivial or meaningless features the competition has built. You have to change the game so that it plays to your strengths instead of your competitors…after all, it’s really tough to win a game that the opponent can define the rules for.
So don’t let yourself fall into the trap of getting distracted by competitors. Leverage the work they do by drawing on your community and put your primary focus on your users instead. At the strategic level, define your own set of rules to compete on that play to your advantages and highlight this throughout your communications. Competition can be crippling or it can bring enormous energy to a company. Ensure that it makes your team thrive.