You may believe that you have identified a unique opportunity to create value with your new business. You’re probably mistaken about the unique part. Others have likely tried to do this job before, and some scrappy entrepreneurs just getting started elsewhere in the world probably share your hopes and dreams. Even if your insight is unique, it can’t remain a secret for long. If you are able to grow your business and achieve profitability, you will effectively be publishing the location of a gold mine to the public. Competition is a central, unavoidable characteristic of entrepreneurship. But, competition is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly at the dawn of a new market. Competitors can teach you a lot about what works and what doesn’t, spur you to innovate and move quickly, and share the burden of educating potential customers about an emerging market.
Many aspects of competition are unpredictable and so entrepreneurs should probably not spend inordinate time obsessing over rivals. Still, some attention to competition can result in smarter strategic choices in product positioning and in refining the definition of the beachhead market. Furthermore, potential investors will want to see that you have identified and analyzed the competition and have made sensible decisions about how to direct your efforts given the competitive landscape. As a way to organize this chapter and to avoid unnecessary theory, let me start with an identification of the key questions most entrepreneurs need to answer and the associated decisions they need to make. Then, I’ll illustrate several key concepts, analyses, and ways of presenting information that are most useful in addressing these questions and decisions.
What Questions are You Really Trying to Answer?
Three questions relevant over three different time horizons are usually most pressing.
First, is there really a gap in the market? This is the immediate question relevant to the decision to pursue an opportunity. Entrepreneurial opportunity is born out of disequilibrium, and for start-ups that disequilibrium is usually either (a) some technological change that has given rise to a new solution to an existing job to be done, or (b) some new job to be done that has emerged because of changes in attitudes, preferences, demographics, regulation, or other external forces. A closely related question is how big is the gap in the marketplace in terms of TAM and SAM.
Second, given that an opportunity exists, how should the specific attributes of your solution be positioned relative to the alternatives available to your potential customers? Positioning concerns both the decisions you make about the substantial features of your solution, as well as what you emphasize in your marketing efforts. This question is answered as you develop your solution, refine its characteristics, and craft a message for communicating your value proposition.
Third, how likely is your new organization to be able to sustain competitive advantage in the long term? In most cases a start-up’s most valuable assets relative to larger rivals are speed and agility. But, if you are successful, you will likely become bigger and a bit more sluggish. Existing and new companies will come for your customers. How can you thrive when that happens?
In order to answer these three questions, you’ll first form a hypothesis about the job to be done, the beachhead market, and your solution concept. If you are following the process in this handbook, this hypothesis is developed with the triple-diamond model. In any case, to consider the issues in this chapter you should have at least a preliminary decision in these three areas. In many cases, these preliminary decisions are the key elements of the description of the entrepreneurial opportunity.
With a hypothesis about the opportunity in hand, here’s a process to assess the competition, position your solution, and articulate how you will sustain competitive advantage:
- Identify the direct, indirect, and potential competitors and research their solutions and marketing strategy.
- Refine and articulate your value proposition by Iteratively refining your product positioning and by mapping your solution relative to those of direct competitors on the dimensions of product performance that most influence the value you offer to your potential customer.
- Develop your advantage thesis by articulating your alpha assets, the moats and barriers that you possess or hope to develop over time.
Identify Direct, Indirect, and Potential Competitors
In broad terms, competition is comprised of the organizations that deliver a solution that customers can select to do the job you have identified as the primary focus of your business. These rivals can be categorized as direct competition, indirect competition, and potential competition.
Direct competition refers to organizations that deliver essentially similar solutions to the same customer segment you are targeting and more or less addressing the same customer needs — the Coke and Pepsi of the soft drink market, UPS and FedEx for ground parcel delivery, Nike and Adidas in athletic shoes. Direct competitors are usually the most obvious and visible sources of competition.
Indirect competition refers to organizations that offer a substantially different solution to your segment for addressing the same or closely related customer needs. For example, Peet’s Coffee and Red Bull are indirect competitors for morning stimulants.
Potential competition refers to organizations that do not currently offer solutions to the focal customer segment, but who have the capability and incentive to do so in the future. For example, Amazon and Google are potential competitors in many markets where they do not currently operate, such as healthcare or education. Potential competitors are dormant, but may substantially pollute the attractiveness and sustainability of an opportunity given the possibility they may enter the market later.
Once you’ve identified the direct, indirect, and potential competitors, spend some time learning what you can about them. Devote the most time to direct competitors, but also investigate the indirect competitors; it’s possible they are more aligned with your beachhead market than you think. Your time is probably not best spent going deep on all the companies that could potentially be competitors — too much uncertainty clouds their role in your future. For the most relevant competitors, read white papers and articles; listen to podcasts; watch video interviews; try out their products; talk to their customers. These competitors, as a result of their marketing efforts, have effectively all run experiments out in full view of the public. You should take advantage of whatever information you can glean from what is working for them, what has not worked for them, and what weaknesses are revealed about them by their current efforts.
Refine and Articulate the Value Proposition
When you developed your solution concept, you probably used a concept selection matrix to compare alternatives. (See the chapter on Concept Development.) The criteria you used for comparison included the key customer needs for the beachhead market. Now pull out that list of needs again and revise and extend it until you have 6 – 10 key customer needs that will mostly determine the value that your solution can deliver to your customer.
Needs are usually expressed in the language of the customer, not as technical specifications. At this point you may wish to elaborate the metrics that most closely match each customer need. For instance, if the customer need for an electric vehicle is “has sufficient range for my daily needs” then some metrics might be “range at 50 kph average speed” and “range at 100 kph average speed” which would capture both city and highway driving.
Once you’ve compiled a list of needs, organize them in a table, along with the key performance specifications. Then, fill in the values for your solution and those of your direct — and possibly indirect — competitors. For example, Mokwheel is a relatively recent start-up company entering the electric bike market with the Mokwheel Basalt model.
Here is a table showing the comparison of the Mokwheel Basalt relative to some of its competitors.
|Customer Need||Metric||Mokwheel||Rad Power RadRover 6 Plus||Juiced Bikes CC X||Niner RIP E9 3-Star||Lectric XP 3.0||Ride1UP 700 Series||Aventon Level.2|
|Range||Miles per charge on test course||60||45||30||30||25||30||40|
|Ride comfort||Suspension type||Front fork suspension w/ lockout. Fat tires.||Front fork suspension and rear coil-over suspension w/ lockout||Front fork suspension w/ lockout||Full suspension w/ RockShox ZEB Select fork||Rigid frame/fork w/ fat tires for cushioning||Front fork suspension w/ lockout||Front fork suspension|
|Payload capacity||Rack weight limit (Kg)||82||45||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||55|
The hypothesis for Mokwheel is that an affordable, rugged electric bicycle with very long range and huge cargo capacity will be well received in the beachhead market, even if the weight of the vehicle is relatively high.
Product Positioning on Key Dimensions
Competitive positioning is often boiled down to just two dimensions to allow visualization with a scatter plot. For this example, let’s assume that the two attributes of electric bikes that seem to best describe differences in products and in preferences in the market are weight and range.
Given two dimensions, we can then draw a map of the landscape of possible solutions. You could very reasonably object to this oversimplification. You’re right. In virtually any market, we oversimplify by representing the competitive landscape in two dimensions. Still, it’s done all the time, and has an obvious benefit for visualization. Recall that you have already captured the other dimensions that matter in the value proposition table from the previous section. You can experiment with which two dimensions are both important to customers and reflect meaningful differences among competitors.
Note that you can sometimes sneak in a third dimension, say price, by labeling the data markers in the scatter plot, as I’ve done with price below.
In using scatter plots for communicating product positioning, a distinction between two types of attributes is important. Weight and range are largely more-is-better or less-is-better attributes. Everyone can agree that — at least for reasonably foreseeable solutions — more range and less weight are desirable. All else equal, customers would prefer a product located in the upper left corner — low weight and high range. However, cost and technical feasibility likely make that position overly optimistic. In contrast, imagine you are designing a chocolate bar and that the two attributes of greatest importance to customers are (1) intensity of chocolate flavor and (2) crunchiness. For the chocolate bar domain, each customer likely has an ideal point — a combination of intensity of chocolate flavor and of crunchiness that they prefer. The producer can position the solution pretty much anywhere, as most positions are technically feasible at similar cost. Reinforced by these examples, we can probably all agree on some basic principles:
- All else equal, a product should be positioned where there is demand.
- All else equal, products should be positioned where there is little competitive intensity.
- For more/less-is-better attributes, cost and technical feasibility constrain the position of your solution, and you likely will face trade-offs among competing attributes.
By the way, many of you have heard about or read the book Blue Ocean Strategy – that’s all the book really says. Put your product where there is demand and where there’s limited competition. Much of the field of quantitative market research is devoted to increasingly precise methods for measuring preferences and optimizing product positions in a competitive landscape. There’s nothing wrong with that logic or that approach. However, I want to warn you about two ways this approach to product positioning could lead you astray.
First, not every location in this space is feasible. Imagine, we were applying the same process, but for cameras, and our axes were image quality and size. There would be a big open area – a so-called “blue ocean” in the region of very high quality images and tiny size. Yet, the optics of photography introduce a fundamental tradeoff between size and quality, for a given imaging technology. This suggests that product strategy and product positioning in technology-intensive industries are cross-functional challenges, and that engineering breakthroughs are what allow for differentiation. For instance, the advent of computational photography, the use of image processing of several images in order to create one excellent composite image, which underlies much of the power of photography on today’s mobile devices, allows some loosening of the connection between camera size and image quality. In the electric bike market, advances in battery chemistry, motor efficiency, aerodynamics, and tire performance may allow for competitive positioning that beats the basic trade-offs reflected by existing competitors and solutions.
My second concern is probably more substantial. If you find yourself drawing two dimensional maps of your product landscape and debating the fine points of position, or if you find yourself building elaborate mathematical models to estimate market share in a crowded market for products in which a few attributes dominate consumer preference, you are probably not in a dynamic industry with abundant entrepreneurial opportunities. Rather, you are in a stagnant industry in which tuning is done by product marketing managers, and often based on mathematical models and consumer data. The goal is a few additional points of market share. If this is your situation, my advice is to find a way to make this industry less stable, to shake it up, and introduce some new dimensions of competition.
In fairness to the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, shaking up the industry is more the essence of their message. Avoid head to head competition tuning product parameters within a highly evolved product landscape. Instead, look for a way to introduce new attributes to the competitive landscape. For example, in the chocolate bar space, consider the FlavaNaturals bar, which is made with cocoa that is super concentrated in flavonoids, which have been shown clinically to increase memory. Or consider the KIND bar, which cleverly blurs the boundary between candy and health food. It tempts the consumer with chocolatey flavor while presenting an image of wholesome goodness with the obvious use of nuts and seeds. Those are both competitors that have shaken up the more traditional dimensions of competition in the candy bar market.
Develop an Advantage Thesis
I’ve written a lot about competitive advantage elsewhere. (See Alpha assets and the Five Flywheels.) But, in sum, advantage always arises from controlling or possessing some resource that significantly enhances your performance in doing a job and that your rivals can’t easily get. I call those resources your alpha assets.
A unique solution is usually the start-up’s initial alpha asset. In a few rare instances, the solution will remain hard to imitate for a long time. For instance, in the pharmaceutical industry a new molecular entity can be patented, and what is patented is what eventually receives government approval. Thus, rivals can not offer the approved compound without infringing the patent. Given the typical time requirements for commercialization, such patent protection may offer 10 or even 15 years of exclusivity. But, outside of the biopharmaceutical industry, patents rarely provide strong barriers to imitation for very long (Ulrich, Eppinger, and Yang 2019). Your unique solution combined with your speed and agility probably give you a few years of advantage, at which point you had best have developed other sources of advantage. The most likely are brand and the scale economies enabled by a large established customer base.
Why Can’t Google Do this?
One of the most common questions that entrepreneurs face from investors is “Why can’t Google (or Apple, Meta, Amazon, et al.) do this?” This question reflects the concern that Google, or any other large and powerful company, could enter your market and offer a similar or better solution than yours, using their vast resources, capabilities, and customer base. The “Google question” is common enough to consider specifically. The answer varies depending on your industry, market, and product category. For example, consider how the answer may differ for two start-ups, one pursuing on-line dating and one pursuing cloud-based video services. Although these examples are specific to the competitive threat by Google, they are illustrative of how an entrepreneur might think about competitive threats from any large, powerful incumbent.
Google could enter the online dating market and offer a similar or better solution than a start-up, but it is unlikely that they will do so for several reasons. First, online dating is not aligned with Google’s mission, which is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Second, the online dating market is fraught with privacy concerns. Google may face legal and ethical issues if it enters the online dating market and uses customer data for matching purposes. Third, online dating is a highly competitive and dynamic industry. Google may not exhibit sufficient agility to keep up with changing customer preferences and needs, as well as the emerging technologies and features in the online dating space. Putting these reasons together, one could argue that Google is not a serious potential competitor in the online dating market. In sum, Google could do it, but Google won’t do it.
Google could also enter the market for cloud-based video services and offer a similar or better solution than the start-up. They might credibly do so for several reasons. First, cloud services is their core business and competency. Google already offers a range of cloud services products such as Google Cloud Platform, Google Workspace, Google Cloud Storage, etc. It has the incentive and interest to enter a niche or specialized segment of the market in order to stimulate demand for Google’s core services. Second, cloud services is a technologically complex industry. Google has the resources and capabilities to enter the cloud services market and offer a high-quality and reliable solution that meets the needs and expectations of customers. Third, cloud services is large and growing industry. Google not only could do it, but Google likely will do it, and has the opportunity and potential to enter the cloud services market and capture a significant share of customers and revenue. If you are in the directly path of a company like Google in its core business, then you will likely need to make an argument about the importance of speed and agility, and some important alpha asset — such as network effects — that can be developed in the two or three years it will take Google to recognize and respond to the opportunity. You may of course also argue that Google would more likely acquire your start-up than build its business from scratch. Such arguments are weak, in my opinion, unless you can make a credible argument for why your start-up will have significant alpha assets within a few years, and in that case, whether or not Google would acquire the company, you have built something of substantial value.
Wrap-Up and Common Pitfalls
Your business plan or “pitch deck,” whether for investors or just for your own planning, should have a section on competition. Everyone expects that, and for good reason. You’ll usually have a table showing how your solution stacks up against the rival solutions on a handful of key customer needs. You’ll likely show your product position relative to direct competitors on a two-dimensional plot. You’ll devote some space to an articulation of your planned sources of long-term competitive advantage.
Do those things and at the same time avoid these rookie mistakes:
- Do not claim that you have no competitors or that you are better than all of them. Every job to be done has been around in some form for a very long time in society. Your potential customers were getting that job done somehow before you had your bright idea. The pre-existing solutions are competitors.
- Do not be dismissive of competitors. If there is an existing company doing the job you are setting out to do, then that company is more accomplished than you are at the time of your analysis. Show some respect and learn from that company’s experience.
- Do not argue that you are the first mover, and that this is a source of competitive advantage. There are rarely first-mover advantages, except sometimes when the market exhibits very, very strong network effects. Consider that Google was not even one of the first ten companies to enter the internet search business.
- Do not cite patents or “patent protection” as a significant source of competitive advantage. Unless you are a bio-pharmaceutical company, patents are at best a low picket fence around your solution. They are not typically a significant barrier to entry.
Karl T. Ulrich, Steven D. Eppinger, and Maria C. Yang. 2019. Product Design and Development. Chapter “Patents and Intellectual Property.” McGraw-Hill. New York.
Kim, W. C., and R. A. Mauborgne. 2005. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.