Is watching the competition a good idea?
You tell me.
There are some clear pros and cons to watching the competition.
First, let me say this: obsessing over your competition is bad. It can’t help you or your business.
If you want to obsess over something, obsess over your customers.
So what’s the #1 pro of watching the competition? Information.
Keeping an eye on the competition helps us gather information. Why do we need this information? It’s not about “doing exactly what they’re doing” but I’d rather know what’s going on than not. Where does competitive information help?
- In sales. I’ve often been asked (while doing sales), “What makes you different from the competition?” Giving a wishy washy answer here doesn’t help. Giving concrete examples does.
- Strategy. Competitors help gauge the overall market and where things are heading. You don’t want to be a follower, you want to be a leader, but there are always lots of players in the market.
- Learning. Rhonda Abrams at Citizen-Times.com makes a list of 10 steps every entrepreneur should take when starting a new venture. #2 is “Objectively check out the competition. Most entrepreneurs fail to see what competitors are good at. Learn from them.”
Robert May at Businesspundit comments on a recent article in Businessweek about competitive advantage. The article says that anything you try will be overtaken by someone else. So you’re screwed. But then it goes on to give some advice on how to gain a competitive advantage, re-promoting the ideas it cuts up.
Looking at the competition isn’t enough to give you a competitive advantage — that has to come from more than just what others are doing. But it can’t hurt to know what’s going on.
So what’s the #1 con to watching the competition? Losing your identity.
If all you focus on is the competition and what they’re doing, you’re going to lose your identity. You can’t answer questions like, “What do you believe in?” with the answer, “Not what those guys believe in!”
Bill Baren recently wrote There is NO Competition. I’m going to quote something cause it’s important:
We have no competitors. It’s not about measuring our self or our business against anyone else. It is about continuing to refine what’s unique about what we do. It’s about zeroing in on your essential zone of genius.
I love the premise here and the conviction of Bill’s words. I’m not sure how we can be unique if we don’t compare ourselves to some degree against others, since being unique implies there’s something you’re unique in comparison to.
What I think is absolutely beautiful about what Bill wrote is the last sentence: It’s about zeroing in on your essential zone of genius. I wish I had written that. Mostly, I love the idea of a “zone of genius.” How cool is that?
Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users recently wrote Ignore the competition. The main thrust of her argument is that software companies obsess over the competition in a “features arms race”. They have X. We have X. They build Y. We build Y.
Ultimately, that’s losing your identity.
It’s a mistake not to watch the competition. It’s also a mistake to focus too much on the competition. Not watching them at all is too egotistical. It smacks of righteous elitism; and eventually those competitors are going to come knocking. And knocking hard.
But if you’re spending more time watching the competition than doing what you do best, you’re wasting time and becoming nothing great.
Be great by taking a leadership role, innovating, and sticking to your beliefs. Just keep an eye on everyone else. Robert May wrote, “…the mantra of today’s corporations should be experiment, execute, and evolve…” Right on.