Startups | 3 min read

Understanding your real competitors


Sometimes your customers really want to use your feature or product, but they also want something else that simply isn’t compatible with it. People really want to be slim and healthy, but they also really want soft drinks and fast food.

McDonalds and Weight Watchers are selling wildly different products, but they’re competing for the same customers. This is what we call indirect competition. Note that this is different to competing on outcomes. Video conferencing and business class flights compete on outcomes. In that case, they’re both hired for the same job (business meetings).

In this case there are two different jobs a customer wants to do, but the jobs themselves are competing with each other. Web products experience these types of conflicts all the time:

  • “I want to track my cloud hosting costs, and I want to minimise the amount of third party gems in our product”.
  • “I want to use this analytics tool, but I also want to optimize response times”.
  • “I want a way to know how my team spend their time, but I also want to show that we’re an open and trusting work environment”.

It drives some hyper-logical people batshit, but humans are perfectly okay with maintaining multiple conflicting opinions and desires. We want to have our cake, and eat it too.

What can you do

There are two conflicting forces here. The attractiveness of the outcome of your product vs the other product. Your marketing should work to make the alternative outcome less attractive or necessary, or reposition your product so that the outcome no longer seems in conflict.

A real example

A customer of Intercom was perplexed. Hundreds of companies had signed up for his A/B testing product, but very few had taken the plunge beyond a trivial test. All the customers really wanted to use the product, knew how to do it, and understood the value. He used Intercom to message these users and identify what was going wrong.

The problem was that, much as they loved the idea of A/B testing their app, they also loved clean, legible, and maintainable code. They didn’t like adding Javascript into their application logic to create meaningful tests, and as such didn’t use the product.

To address these concerns and others, he added a message schedule downplaying the importance of clean code and up-selling his product. They sent a mail on day three to non-users saying “If no one is using your product, who cares how clean your code is?”, and a well timed day seven mail saying “This morning your team can add more code, or add more customers. Which do you want?”. These messages were effective. Many resulted in installs, some resulted in technical debates, but most importantly all of them produced extra insights into their business. Which is what you need when you’re starting out.

Key idea: Customers don’t experience your product in a vacuum. They experience it alongside every other product, service, and idea fighting for their attention. Some of these will compete with your brand and some will contradict it. Understanding all these forces helps you counter them with your marketing efforts.