Whether you’re a CEO at a small company, or an executive at a publicly-traded company, there are so many things to do in a given work day. I spend a good part of my day saying “no” to potential opportunities (I even have a “No!” button on my desk to remind me how important it is to say no as often as possible). Everything can seem important, until you stop and think to yourself “what would happen if I completely ignore that item on my list?” More often that not, there would be very little financial impact to your business.
Here’s one suggestion that is a bit unconventional: ignore your competition. That’s right, I think you should ignore your competition and not worry about what they are doing. Yes, you could study the competition’s product, analyze their marketing, and deconstruct their strengths and weaknesses. Or, you could simply focus on what you can control, build a product that you love to use, and do your best to delight your customers. There is no one in the world who knows the problems and opportunities of your product or service better than you. You don’t need your competition to help you build a better product or user experience. Who cares what the competition is doing if you are building a product that your customers love? Focus on your own product and business, and you’ll find success.
This is contrary to what you might experience if you ever pitch your business to investors or potential partners. In a typical meeting or in a follow-up email, eventually you’ll be asked “How does your product or service compare to the competition?” — one of those softball, standard questions that is so easy to ask. Whenever I’m asked this question or variations on the same theme, I usually chalk it up to a lack of imagination — almost an acknowledgment that the person asking the question can’t think of anything better to ask. From my perspective, it’s related to the equally obvious question “Why can’t Google/Facebook/Apple build this service?” (The reality is that these companies can build anything. Heck, Apple has been reported to be working on self-driving cars).
And it’s not only at business meetings that these kind of dull questions are posed. At a recent family gathering, one of my relatives asked a simple question about how Punchbowl’s traffic compared to the competition. The question may have been well-intentioned, but any answer is the first in a conversation that’s likely to devolve into an endless comparison. And the reality is that most entrepreneurs don’t want to be in a discussion about their competitors. Entrepreneurs would much rather discuss the innovations they are building and how they view the market.
But beyond irritating questions and plebian conversations, there are good business reasons to ignore the competition. Let’s look in-depth at 5 reasons you should ignore your competition:
1) You have limited resources: Whether you work at a small company or a large one, you probably have limited resources. Your most valuable asset is time, so use it wisely. Put your energy into building a better product and satisfying more customers rather than spending time to evaluate the competition’s every move. It may defy conventional wisdom, but companies that focus their energy inward and strive for greatness are much more likely to succeed. Challenge your team internally to ignore the competition and focus on every aspect of your own business. How can you improve a customer’s first interaction with your product or service? Can you iterate your marketing programs to be more effective? How can you leverage customer service to inform your future product roadmap? There are so many ways to improve your current business without any knowledge of your competition. With limited resources, be extra picky about how you spend your time.
2) Innovation can be stifled by competition: Build something new and different — that’s innovation. Too many companies don’t actually innovate, they only refine an existing competitor’s product or service. Have you ever noticed that kids and amateurs come up with some of the greatest ideas? That’s because they are literally inventing products out of thin air. They don’t have the weight of comparison and aren’t influenced by existing products. Instead, they dream new ideas, solve their own problems, and truly innovate. If you compare everything you do to your competition, you may find yourself in a bloody battle for survival. Instead, make the competition irrelevant. We’ve seen an example of this on Broadway with the huge hit “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel Miranda created an innovative new musical that has no comparison. “Hamilton” captured new demand and made all other musicals irrelevant. Invent something new and original and ignore the competition — that’s the formula for innovation success.
3) Your customers don’t care about your competition: Although your customers may have researched available options in the market, once they choose your product they don’t really care about the competition. For example, in the process to buy a new car, you probably spent a lot of time to compare makes and models. But once you’ve made your decision, all that matters is to get the best possible price and service from the car dealership. That’s the context to consider as you think about how to acquire new customers. Don’t concern yourself with the competition, be the best solution to your customers’ problems. Offer a fantastic solution to a real problem and get your brand in front of your customer as often as possible. Your job is to sell umbrellas when it’s raining. Surprise, delight, and more than satisfy your customers’ needs and you’ll never have to worry about whether they will choose a competitor again.
4) You can’t control your competition: Despite your best efforts, nothing you do will actually impact your competition. I learned this the hard way as the Product Manager for Adobe Premiere when Apple introduced a new competitor called Final Cut Pro at the National Association of Broadcasters in 1999. We knew that Apple was about to introduce the new product, and we tried to muffle their announcement with our own new features. However, it was all in vain: Apple quickly gained marketshare on the Mac, and we were forced to focus all future efforts on Premiere for Windows. Apple had their own strategic priorities, their own product roadmap, and their own take on the world. Nothing we did would stop them. The lesson: chart your own course. To do this, make sure you can clearly articulate your strategy and make sure all of your employees know it too. It’s important to spend time to articulate and repeat your strategy so that everyone in your organization knows what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it. Put your energy into things you can control and make sure all of your stakeholders understand your path to success. With a solid strategy, you can be successful in the market regardless of what the competition decides to do. The postscript: over the next decade, Adobe built brand-new versions of Premiere for both Mac and Windows, and focused on making their product great and delighting their customers. Adobe Premiere is once again the leader in the market.
5) Your competition is structurally different: It’s very likely that your competition has fundamental differences from your business, and therefore comparisons don’t make much sense. For example, maybe you are a small company that’s raised VC funds, but your competitor is part of a multi-national conglomerate. Maybe you are trying to bootstrap your way to success, while your primary competitor raised $50M in funding. Perhaps you are 100% focused on one part of the market, while your competitor offers a far more broad selection of products. Whatever the situation, it’s likely that your competition has different internal pressures, other priorities, and divergent measures of success. There’s no possible way to understand how your competitor is structurally different from the outside, and it means that comparisons aren’t very useful. It’s yet another reason to look inward, rather than concern yourself with your competition.
The key message: to be successful, ignore your competition. It’s as simple as that, right? Well, like all good advice, the truth is more nuanced. I don’t actually advocate that managers completely ignore their competition. Rather, I think it’s healthy to take a quick look once in a while, follow your competitors’ public news, and be generally aware of significant changes your competition makes in the market. However, hopefully this post gives pause to entrepreneurs and corporate managers who spend too much time thinking about the competition, and investors that have an unhealthy obsession with “the competition question.” I believe the right formula is to look inward in face of competition. You can be successful regardless of what your competition decides to do.
I’m always reminded about just how many competitors can be successful in a given market when I arrive at an airport to pick up a rental car. In most major airports in the U.S., there are at least a dozen different companies who all offer the same basic product: rental cars. And yet, despite all of the adjacent competition, each of these companies can co-exist and thrive. How is this possible? Why isn’t there only ONE rental car company that provides rental cars for all customers? It’s a good reminder that in a market that’s large enough with lots of customers, there are many, many companies that can be successful. Focus on solving customer pain points in your own, unique way and you’ll be on a path to success.
So yes — ignore your competition, focus on what you can control, and find your own path to success. But pop your head up once in a while to educate yourself about how competitors are attacking the market. Find a healthy balance, and you’ll find success. Thanks for reading, I’m grateful for your time.