How's About We Walk Down There and F**ck Em All
The startup world has an exaggerated sense of competition - almost as if each "player" is a puppy struggling for access to the funding teet. This serves the VC puppet masters just fine, but can ultimately destroy the very business you're trying to start.
The Apalachin Meeting
I've been wracking my brains trying to remember the movie wherein a bunch of mafia bosses came together at the country estate of "Joe the Barber" to "discuss business". There were a number of crime families sprinkled around New York, New Jersey, Chicago and L.A. - but they spent most of their time fighting each other for dominance of the underworld markets.
This in-fighting allowed the government to play one faction against the other, systematically eroding the underworld strength of each family.
The agenda of the Apalachin meeting was simple:
Together we define the market and thrive. Divided we get gobbled up.
And thrive they did - working together and dividing "the market" according to who did what best.
I think startups should do the same. Stop fighting each other like puppies and gang up to carve out a new market. You'll make more money and have happier customers.
Ironically the meeting was a bad idea as all of the crime bosses were in one place at one time, giving the FBI a golden opportunity to round them up. Which they did.
Hey - See All Those Cows Down There?
It's one of my favorite jokes as there is a lot of truth to it. If you haven't heard it - a young bull and an older bull are sitting on top of a hill looking down at the "sexxy?" milk cows. The younger one says "hey see all those hot cowbabies down there? Let's run down and fuck one of em!". The older bull chuckles and says "how bout we walk down there and fuck em all..."
For some reason I see a lot of the same attitude in the startup scene when one startup looks at the market landscape and wants to dash in, carving out a place for themselves. Jeff Atwood's post - "Who's Your Arch Enemy" describes their competitor - "Experts-Exchange" - this way:
They are almost universally loathed. We don't just have a rival, we have a larger than life moustache-twirling, cape-wearing villain to contrast ourselves with
The post is a good read - typical Atwood. Especially the part where he contradicts himself completely (part of the Atwood Charm)
I have absolutely nothing against Experts-Exchange... There are no hard feelings; this "rivalry" is mostly useful as a way to explain what it is we do. This internet is certainly big enough for the both of us -- big enough, in fact, for hundreds of Q&A websites.
Did You Pick The Right Enemy?
I read this post from KickOffLabs and I was wondering if it was a good idea to write negatively about a competitor (the story is a testimonial from a client):
And LaunchRock? I’m still waiting to hear from them. I’m an engineer, not a web expert, but I know that there are two important rules while starting a successful web-based startup: (I) don’t promise what you can’t give; and (II) talk to your customers. LaunchRock did neither, KickOffLabs did both... I do hope LaunchRock catches up, but for now I’m recommending KickOffLabs and hopefully using them for my next ventures.
This kind of scrappy startup mojo is typical for the space - a young bull running down to find a hot cowbabe. I'm not trying to say anything is wrong here - I'm trying to suggest there might be a better way for Scott W and his competition.
What if KickoffLabs and LaunchRock expand the early launch market? In other words: what if they got Apalachin and worked together to stave off the established way of doing things, growing the market for themselves and casually ... errr "loving them all"?
Here's why I bring this up. I didn't even know that LaunchRock existed. In reading the KickOffLabs testimonial I'm happy to learn that they have a happy customer - but everyone has a happy customer at some point, and everyone has an unhappy customer.
So I headed over to LaunchRock to see what's what - and I have to say it looks nice and, as it turns out, they have some nice testimonials too.
As a customer - now I'm confused. Believe it or not - I'm being forced to actually dig deeper into LaunchRock in an effort to understand why they might be better/worse then KickOffLabs... I'm not sure that was the intention.
A confused customer is likely to go with what they know, rather than "risk it" with a new company. This often means going over to the "status-quo" that's been around for a long time... the "old market".
Let's Flip This Around
What if this had played differently? What if, instead of contrasting yourself with your competitors, you actively promoted the differences?
To wit: I actively promote Peepcode and Pluralsight. Clear "competitors" of Tekpub's. This might seem counterintuitive - but they do different things than we do! I'd rather have a customer excited about the promise of screencasts over books than someone confused by "who's the best here?"
But I don't just stop at "the mention" - I leverage our differences in a positive way.
More than once I've suggested that Pluralsight might be a better option if you want "by the book" Microsoft training. I've sent people over to CodeSchool who want a bit more "hands-on" stuff with Rails and jQuery. Shoot I send them off to PeepCode and CodeSchool just to learn more period!
This isn't a zero-sum, winner-take-all thing. Truly loving your customers sometimes means sending them to your competitors.
This whole post was inspired by something I read on HackerNews today, wherein an entrepreneur was asked to evaluate the abilities of his competition by a VC:
My first instinct was to shy away from talking about our competition. Should I even acknowledge that they exist? Or should I, instead, say something that would discourage him from funding them? As startups, why don’t we talk about our competition in public? After all, we’re all solving the SAME problems for the SAME customer and we have the SAME goal – to show our customers that we have a better solution than the status quo that they are used to.
Yep. VCs (and many managers I know) love to play the "dogfight" game - they want to see how scrappy you are and will give you ample opportunity to thrash your competitors. Why play their game? Know your strengths - and the strengths of the other vendors in your marketplace.
Celebrate the market and grow it. Educate your potential customers to the potential of the marketplace and refer them to the right solution - even if it's not yours.