When you are starting a new company you are, by definition, the underdog. Your market may have established competitors with massive resources, or maybe the market is new and unproven. As the underdog you are at a disadvantage in the game of business and if you play the game by the rules you will lose.
So, in order to win you have to cheat.
Cheating in business means having an unfair competitive advantage, something that competitors (and the market) can’t easily replicate. There are many kinds of competitive advantages and I’ve listed a few of them below.
- Technology. A technology advantage allows you to do something no one else can do. The technology could be some new kind of software, new production process or new mathematical model. Any technology advantage is really a head start because someone else will find a way to replicate your technology in 6-9 months. Yes, even if you have a patent. However, that 6-9 month head start is a lot of time to make use of your technology to build other advantages, or continue to improve the technology to extend the head start. Examples: Google, New Relic.
- Cost Structure. A cost structure advantage means that it costs you less to provide the same or better service than existing competitors (sometimes this is called a “new business model”). Maybe you outsource labor overseas, have volume discounts or have a better process that requires fewer people. Cost structure advantages can last longer than technology since established competitors often have trouble making fundamental changes to their business. New entrants won’t have that problem so you can expect other start up companies to copy your model quickly if it works. Example companies: Amazon, Walmart.
- Happy Customers. An existing base of happy customers is a huge advantage. Customer acquisition is one of the biggest costs for any business (especially marketplaces) so if you have already acquired customers it becomes that much more expensive for competitors to take them from you. However, they need to be HAPPY customers so you need to continue to invest in customer satisfaction to maintain this advantage. If your customers become unhappy then this becomes a liability quickly. Example companies: Uber, Etsy, Airbnb.
- Data. If you know something that no one else knows you have an advantage. The trend of Big Data is really just a translation of the data companies already had into a competitive advantage. This is the most maintainable of the competitive advantages since it is a lot like a trade secret – managed correctly your competitors will never know what you know. However, it’s also the hardest advantage to translate into revenue since you need to use it to create new technology, make your customers happy or improve your cost structure. In the best case scenario you can get customers to pay you for your data. Example companies: Facebook, Twitter.
There are, of course, many more possible advantages. The best companies have more than one of these and the struggling companies might not have any. I recommend picking out some companies you respect and thinking deeply about their competitive advantage; it is not always what you think.
When you are getting started it is important to know what your competitive advantage is or what you want it to be. Everything you do should make use of your advantage or help strengthen it. That is how you cheat, you use your advantage to compete and win.
This makes prioritization for your company easier because you stop asking the questions “What can we create?” and “What can we sell?” to “Where do we know we can win?“. Playing an unfair game is how you win and you make the game unfair by maximizing your advantage.