Competition is one of the things entrepreneurs fear the most. The belief that a competitor can appear suddenly and wipe out your chances of being successful, even before you go to production, stalks the heart of every startup CEO and product manager. The belief has spawned mountains of non-disclosure agreements, maintained the idea that stealth startups are the way to go, and contributed steady sales of heavy drapes to block stunning views of the Bay in San Francisco and to keep prying eyes out. There is little to no empirical evidence that any of the schemes that have been hatched to keep an idea secret until launch have actually contributed to the success of a startup – but the belief continues none the less.
Let’s be honest. Your biggest competitor isn’t the other guy two doors down the hall who overheard you in Starbucks three weeks ago. It isn’t Microsoft, even if they have a product in the same market with 559 features. Your biggest competitor is the habits your potential buyers have adopted as they solved the problem your product addresses in the best way they could. Your product has to address their problem well enough that they will want to pay for it and keep paying. A lot of people will try a product and then revert to old habits, especially if the solution has a lot of friction in the adoption process. That is why the Lean Startup movement emphasizes testing every aspect of the business model, adoption process and user experience. If there is a tripping point for new users, they will find it.
I like the article Michael Adams wrote recently and his recommendation to run against your competition like a race horse. After all, if a horse could decide not to run because there was going to be other horses on the track, there wouldn’t be too many horse races and there certainly wouldn’t be any high stakes winners.