The Art of the WordPress Startup: Part 2

Startup Competition

This post is part 2 of a series on how to launch your startup on WordPress. Last time I answered some common questions first-time founders have, and this week we’ll focus more in-depth on another common question startup founders have:

How should I deal with my competition?

The human brain dislikes ambiguity and instead likes to have definitive answers to questions. Oftentimes you’ll see blog post authors take an extreme position, and sometimes this is to entice click-throughs while other times it’s to promote their own product (this happens particularly on guest posts). However, the best answers tend to not be extreme positions, but rather somewhere in the middle.

If you’ve ever sat down with an attorney and peppered them with questions, you’ll quickly find that the beginning of most answers starts out something like “it depends”. That is no coincidence. Attorneys are trained to think through all the various aspects of a situation and respond in the most accurate fashion given all available information. Here I’ll try to provide the proper answer, rather than the extreme one, about how to deal with your competition in the startup game.

At one end you’ll have those who say you should obsess over your competition, and follow their every move. At the other you have those who say you shouldn’t worry about your competition at all. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

You need to be aware of what they’re doing and keeping general tabs on them, but definitely you should be more focused on improving your own product/service/startup. Whatever you do, never assume you have “no competition”, and certainly don’t tell a potential investor that (hint: it screams naive). You always have potential competition, whether it’s those currently in your space, those about to enter your space, or even those that are indirect competition. Even if you have a patent, it’s possible someone has done a workaround on your IP or has a similar solution with their own patent albeit in a less elegant manner.

So what should you do?

Well, that depends on what stage you’re at with your startup. Are you at the idea phase, MVP phase, or scaling up? Understand that the optimal strategy involves doing different things at different stages. In the idea phase doing lots of research is critically important. You need to make sure you uncover as much as you can about the landscape, because you’re about to throw yourself into a pretty significant commitment once you decide to go in a certain direction. Do not take that first decision lightly.

But what about once you’re up and selling, and have started to get that initial traction?

A good idea is to peruse your main competitors’ sites on the weekends for a bit (to avoid distracting you during your workweek, which you should have 100% dedicated to your own progress), seeing what they’re up to and maybe popping over to their blog and social media feeds. Maybe set a weekly Google Alert on their company name or particular product names, so you can be reactive rather than proactive on digging up the latest.

Another common question I get from first-time founders is in regards to how they should treat/view their competition.

This is equally important to how you should monitor your competition which we’ve discussed above. So how should you treat/view your competition? In two words… with respect. Not the kind of respect you give an 88 year-old trying to get past you at the grocery store (leniency). But rather the kind of respect Tom Brady has for Peyton Manning. Even though bloggers are covered by the same First Amendment protections with respect to defamation that journalists are, if the plaintiff can prove negligence they are entitled to damages. So be careful about trash talking your competition in blog posts and other mediums, as if they have the resources to sue, your statements might end up being very costly.

If it’s a serious competitor, you should respect their achievements and be honest with yourself about their successes and weaknesses. If you are lying to yourself about them, you’re only doing yourself a disservice. If you talk bad about your competition to current or potential customers, just like talking bad about a mutual acquaintance (behind their back) to a friend, it will only reflect poorly on you and/or your startup. Keep in mind that if your competitor grows to substantial size, they may want to acquire you down the line, which is referred to as a “liquidity event” and is often the whole point of creating a startup in the first place. If you’ve been snippy or disrespectful, don’t expect a glowing valuation or even an offer of any sort. This sort of thing happens all the time.

In fact, your competition can make you stronger. The Harvard Business Review did a post last year about how competition strengthens startups, and it was based on research of two million companies launched in the UK between 1995 and 2005. It found that exposure to competition in the early stages actually increases the long-term survival prospects of a startup. So if you make it to that 10 year mark, you might want to send your closest competitors flowers. One example they cite is how Southwest Airlines began in the highly competitive airline industry which forced them to develop an extremely efficient operation which still benefits them to this day, with lower costs per passenger and better margins, making them one of the few domestic airlines able to turn a profit.

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Can I leverage my competition to my advantage?

Absolutely. Have you ever noticed that there’s nearly always a Great Clips franchise located in the same strip mall as a Walmart? Even though Walmart has their own chain of hair salons located within stores, Great Clips knows that they appeal to the same audience and that some find it odd to get their hair cut inside the actual store. In addition, they recognize that they can beat them on technology by having better smartphone apps and that if you’re just going for a haircut, finding parking near the Walmart front door can take longer than the actual haircut itself. So they’ve leveraged the R&D that Walmart spent years doing on traffic patters and population, and instantly put themselves in optimal locations.

Will my competitors copy me?

Absolutely. This happens to all startups in all industries. You may be tempted to be flattered, but don’t be. Just look at it as part of the game you’ve signed up for. So what can you do if your competitor keeps copying you? Keep your head down and keep innovating.

For one, consumers tend to respect the company that goes to market first and they generally give less thought to the company who is always playing catch up. In addition, you can utilize the intellectual property available to you in your home country. Here in the U.S., if you’ve got a catchy product name, trademark it. Have a proprietary design? Pursue a design patent. Have a proprietary functional aspect? Pursue a utility patent. Even the “patent pending” status is sometimes enough to keep your competitors at bay, as they will be afraid your patent might be approved down the line and they would’ve spent considerable time/effort developing something similar for nothing.

Finally, the most important information about your competition oftentimes comes from your current or potential customers.

The sales and marketing team (or you as the founder in the beginning) is usually the most in tune with this. If your competitor has feature XYZ and you’re constantly losing sales to them because of it, you’d better put your ego aside about “copying” them and start plugging that hole in your sales funnel before the leak gets unmanageable. Is there something “Competitor X” does really poorly? Great, figure out a way to work that into your pitch without naming your competitor or throwing them under the bus. The key is to do it in a way that seems natural and allows your potential customer to connect the dots which they often will.

Full Series — Click here to see all articles in this series.

2 Comments

  1. Cody Landefeld
    Cody Landefeld

    Great article Sean. Very timely for where the WordPress economy is at the moment.

    Reply

  2. Sean O'Brien
    Sean O'Brien

    Thanks Cody. Glad you liked it.

    Reply