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Startup Advice: Don't Follow the Leader

As a small business, chances are you face some stiff competition from companies that are much larger and older than you.
 

Having a large competitor to battle against can be a great motivator. But there is one thing that can be detrimental to your company when it comes to the competition. That is: copying the market leader. Don’t ever copy your competition.

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. While imitation and flattery might be fun for friends, it is an awful strategy for growing a successful company. Consider that the great companies today were never flattering imitations of their (then) much larger competitors:

Facebook became the number one social network despite there being no shortage of social networks such as MySpace and Friendster. The search engine market was dominated by MSN, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves when Google entered the scene. No one thought the world had use for another car manufacturer before Tesla was formed.

What is the single commonality among all these companies?

They all solved their respective problems differently than the established competition. In other words, they all chose to create rather than copy.

So many new upstarts are merely “me too” copycats with a slightly lower price and promise of more features. None of today’s titans ever followed this strategy. In fact, these companies grew to dominance by having fewer features and even costing more.

Not fitting a mold

Today’s fastest companies are rising at meteoric rates precisely because they are solving problems completely differently than everyone else before them. This is only possible when you ignore the competition and find out how to solve the same problem differently. Look at any company today that is on a rapid-growth trajectory, and you will find a few key things they do differently from anyone else.

Therein lies the pitfall of copying a competitor: you unintentionally become doomed to facing the same challenges and making the same mistakes. This actually stifles your own ability to innovate because innovation is never derived through duplication. In fact, too often things are the way they are simply because they have been copied by someone else. And they remain unchanged because no one has thought to revisit why it was done in a particular way in the first place.

Another trap of copying a competitor means that you will find yourself subject to the same vulnerabilities as your competition. For example, if you copy the same business model as a competitor, you both risk disruption should the market conditions change. The same goes with feature sets. Should technology change rapidly (and it does), you may find you and your competition scrambling to adjust—and hopefully you can recover.

Keeping the market open

Finally, copying a competitor lowers the bar for new entrants into the market. Duplicity in the competitive landscape is a disruptor’s delight. It makes it infinitely easier to create differentiation when there are so many similarities in the market among the key players.

We have witnessed all these dynamics for ourselves at Webconnex when we entered the seemingly crowded space of registration, ticketing, and fundraising software. There was no shortage of me-too versions out on the market. Besides the logos being different, the model and offering was essentially the same across many of the leading providers. Based on that lack of differentiation in the market, we chose to go an entirely different route and intentionally ignore the competition by adding features that didn’t yet exist. The payoff has been amazing as we continue to double in size every year.

Next time you have a problem to solve, a feature to build, or an idea to launch, see if you can come up with ideas without consulting what others have done in the past. In doing so, you might discover a breakthrough in approach or methodology that is superior to every other solution available. This is vitally important because the companies that will shape and create our future won’t be the me-too versions of today’s offering. The great companies of tomorrow will solve the same problems we have always had, but will do it differently because they didn’t follow the leader.

 

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