What could you learn from looking at your competitors or other tech startups in a different way?
I hear views like this all the time. Even if you’re right – there’s something you may be missing.
Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures wrote a great post the other day that reminded me I’ve been meaning to write about this topic.
“My desire for this “Opposing Views Reader” is related to my concern about information cascades. In general, we seem to be building too many positive re-enforcement systems on the web. How about “agree” and “disagree” buttons? If all you can do is “like” or “favorite” items, it becomes very hard to express that you care about something but have a different opinion.”
I feel the exact same way.
I’m a news junkie and love to watch the Sunday morning talk shows like Meet the Press, This Week with Christiane Amanpour or Shields & Brooks on The News Hour on Fridays. But I tape the shows. I can’t watch them live because I have to skip through the guest interviews. I’m tired of hearing one side of the story – it’s pre-packaged BS. I like the round table discussions they have later in the show because you get to hear opposing views.
And that has had me thinking about the tech sector and how dismissive both startup teams & VCs can be about both their competition and the “hot” companies in any sector.
I was at a dinner about a year ago with a few VCs and startup founders. The topic of FourSquare came up. None of the VCs were investors in FourSquare. People were being so dismissive when I checked into our restaurant, “oh, yeah, let’s see if you’re the mayor now. Oooh.”
“I dunno, guys. Maybe this mayor thing will last and maybe it won’t. Maybe check-ins will be automatic in the future some day or maybe people won’t care about check-ins.
But I do know that FourSquare has captured the zeitgeist of what young, mobile & social people want. That plus great press & it’s working on some level.
I’m sure the management team & board over there know that they need to focus on what comes beyond mayors, badges & check-ins. I’m interested to see where they take it next.
But what could we learn from them today?
If you think it’s all a marketing gimmick [I don't] then let’s discuss how we could be better at marketing in the way that they have. If you think that game mechanics are the innovation, then let’s talk about whether it would apply to our company. If you think it’s location-based services / find out where your friends are at while you’re out – let’s talk about whether we need to incorporate that into our product.
To ignore FourSquare would be dumb. I use technology precisely to try and develop an intuitive feel about what will work and what won’t”
The management team got it. The VCs snickered a bit. I was unconvincing, I guess. They knew their position on FourSquare. They weren’t looking for an opposing view.
I had a similar experience with turntable.fm.
I’m not a “music guy” so I tend to grok music stuff less than others. But I saw turntable.fm before it was a larger phenomenon. My wife was traveling so I was on the computer late at night. I logged into a room to listen to music & see what the product was all about.
Boy did I get sucked in. I wanted a turn at DJ’ing so I waited until I could find the right room to DJ in. I watched the music that others were playing to see what the vibe was. I played with the buttons “awesome” to support a DJ and saw my head bobbing up and down when I liked his music. Mostly I chatted with other people in the room that I knew. And many I didn’t know.
I trash talked their music selection. I swore to myself I’d pick cool songs. I didn’t want to be that music dork with no style.
I finally got on stage. Then I had to wait four more songs until I got my turn. I played Lenny Kravitz. The LEGEND! Everybody loves Lenny Kravitz, right? I didn’t play more obscure stuff like “Mr. Cab Driver” [ok, if you don't know this song do yourself a favor, click on the link and listen to it.] I played “Are You Gonna Go My Way” – an absolute KILLER of a song. [go on, listen to it as you read the rest of this post]
So I played Lenny and …. I got boo’ed. Really? Eff you guys! OK, I’ll come up with something more conventional that EVERYBODY with taste loves. I played Rage Against the Maching “Killing in the Name Of.” [go on ...] Has a better male angst song EVER been written? Ah, man! Booed for that, too? How old are you guys? Do your parents know you’re up past midnight pretending to be tech people on Turntable.fm?
I got sucked in two nights in a row past 2am. My wife never knew [until now, gulp]. What a great way for a guy like me stuck in the 90’s on music to get curated music while I do other stuff. I think that’s pretty cool in the way Pandora helps me explore new music.
I got so excited to tell other people what I liked about turntable.fm. I called a bunch of portfolio companies and asked them to check it out. I said the same thing to each:
“I don’t know if it’s a real business or not. I’m not a ‘music guy.” But I know there is something addicting to what they’ve built. Check it out. Let’s see if there is anything we can learn about our behavior – good lessons or bad ones – that will inform our product design in the future.”
I loved the IM’ing with the crowd and the sense of community. I loved the competition to get on stage and then how when you’re on stage you have to wait patiently to play your tracks. I loved the anticipation of how the crowd would react to my choices. I didn’t love that nobody in the room had taste. But I lobbied hard using IM to get people to “like” my song so I could see those addictive bobbing heads. It worked!
And when I started telling other VCs to check it out I have to admit they were pretty dismissive. By now it had been in the press a bunch and there was a sort of “here we go again” attitude.
“It will never work. The labels will kill them. It’s just a fad propped up by the Silicon Valley elite marketing machine.”
Wow. Who pee’d in your Cheerios this morning?
I don’t care if turntable.fm succeeds [I hope it does]. That’s not the point. What could we learn from their success? The goal isn’t to copycat them. I don’t want to see any more freakin’ “we’re the turntable.fm of …X.” No, you’re not. I want people to look at what components of it work (product, art work, invite system, marketing … whatever you think it is that drove people to flock there in the first place).
And even more pertinent to you specifically at your startup …
The number of companies I talk to (or even portfolio companies) who are dismissive of their competitors is enormous. Have respect for your competitors. Understand what they do well and why. Don’t just mentally write off their features or marketing as “dumb” – ask internally what you could learn from it.
I talked to one company who had build really differentiated IP and had great customer traction. Yet they somehow never got as much press as one of their less-funded competitors who had less good of a product and significantly fewer customers.
“Guys, let’s stop whining about it and do something about it. Let’s understand why they’re getting better press. Let’s think about whether that is hurting us or not. Let’s understand what about our approach isn’t resonating with journalists. Are we off message? Is our product not as pretty? Do we have the wrong PR firm? Are we not at enough tech events?
… And only after we answer these questions should we decide if we WANT to be better than them in this way or not. But let’s at least understand it.”
So the next time you’re tempted to write off the latest hot company: Instagram, Pintrest, Tumblr, Spotify, AirBnB, or whatever – in stead of being envious or dismissive be “dissecting.” Find out what you think in their product is working and what you don’t think matters. Understand why they’re getting user adoption and what you could learn from that.
Is it just that they have the right VCs and therefore they’re deemed as hot? If so, what are you going to do about that? Do they have a tighter integration with Facebook and therefore are getting lower-cost customer adoption – fix that. Did they crawl through Craigslist spamming people to acquire customers more rapidly? What guerilla tactics do you want to use? What’s fair game? What’s not?
Never be dismissive. Sometimes hyped companies and competitors are just that – hyped. But often there are some kernels of magic that are happening in that place that’s helping propel them in to a place that you wish you were.
What could you learn from them?