Why isn’t there a box for Competition on the Lean Canvas?
Someone asked me this question recently, and it’s a good one. Understanding your competition is important, but ultimately it should have very little impact on what you do. For starters, your biggest competitor is likely not another company, but in fact the most difficult alternative to overcome: doing nothing. Getting people to change from a “good enough” option or from not doing anything at all is often a Herculean task. And we haven’t even started talking about competition.
Investors like to know about competitors. They like to see that you understand the landscape and have the appropriate industry knowledge to navigate through and around them. But you’re not building a company to raise funding (it’s not a goal, just a part of the process, potentially…)
The Lean Canvas is designed to be testable. You can take any section of it and test your assumptions through experimentation. Maybe you’re pointing your solution at the wrong target market, or maybe you have the wrong go-to-market strategy. You put in your assumptions, figure out how to test them and gather results. Then rinse and repeat through the riskiest to least riskiest aspects of your business.
Competition really doesn’t play a role in there. You can’t run experiments with the competition. You can’t even learn that much from what they’re doing (just as they can’t learn much from you) because all you see is what they’re showing you on the outside. You don’t really know what they’ve learned behind the scenes. In fact, that’s one of your competitive advantages. While it’s safe to assume that more mature competitors know more than you, it’s also very likely that they’re not going about things as rigorously as they could. Lean Canvas (and Lean Startup) can be a competitive advantage if you can test and learn your way through it incredibly quickly. Younger competitors that are “behind you” may try and copy you, but who cares? What they see is three steps behind where you already are based on what you’ve learned.
Ultimately it’s up to you to find a competitive differentiator that truly matters. If you can’t, you’re finished. And digging deep into competitors won’t help you discover a competitive advantage either; talking to and working with customers will.
You shouldn’t ignore competitors. It’s important that you know what’s going on in your market – that you have your “finger on the pulse” – but initially as you’re validating (or invalidating) your business, don’t get caught obsessing over them. You’ll get overwhelmed. Instead, build your startup with all the rigor and speed you can muster. Leverage tools like Lean Canvas (and models like Lean Startup) to ingrain an insane amount of focus and intensity. You don’t win by mindlessly reacting to what competitors are doing (or what you think they’re doing). You can’t succeed by differentiating yourself without proof that the differentiation actually matters to customers. Spend too much time watching competitors and you’ll get absolutely nothing of value done.