Some thoughts on incumbents

Reposted from Oct 7, 2010 from

By “incumbents” I mean the big companies that are loosely competitive to your startup.

– The first thing to do is try to understand the incumbent’s strategy.  For example, see my analysis of Google’s strategy.

– Being on an incumbent’s strategic roadmap is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they might copy what you build or acquire a competitor.  On the other hand, if you build a valuable asset you could sell your company the acquirer at a “strategic premium.”

– Incumbents that don’t yet have a successful business model (e.g. Twitter) might think they have a strategy, but expect it to change as they figure out their business model.  An incumbent without a successful business model is like a drunk person firing an Uzi around the room.

– Understand the incumbent’s acquisition philosophy. More mature companies like Cisco barely try to do R&D and are happy to acquire startups at high prices.  Incumbents that are immature like Facebook only do “talent acquisitions” which are generally bad outcomes for VC-backed startups (but good for bootstrapped or lightly funded startups). Google is semi-mature, and does a combination of talent and strategic acquisitions.

– Understand the incumbent’s partnership philosophy.  Yahoo and Microsoft are currently very open to partnerships with startups.  Google and Facebook like to either acquire or build internally. If you don’t intend to sell your company, don’t talk seriously about partnerships to incumbents that don’t seriously consider them.

– Every incumbent has M&A people who spend a lot of their time collecting market intelligence. Just because they call you and hint at acquisition doesn’t mean they want to buy you – they are likely just fishing for info. If they really want to buy you, they will aggressively pursue you and make an offer.  As VCs like to say, startups are bought, not sold.

– Try to focus on features/technologies that the incumbents aren’t good at.  Facebook is good at social and social-related (hard-core) technology.  Thus far they’ve kept their features at the “utility level” an haven’t built non-utility features (e.g. games, virtual goods, game mechanics).  Google thus far has been weak at social and Apple has been weak at web services.

– Try to focus on business arrangements that the incumbents aren’t good at.  Facebook and Google only do outbound deals with large companies.  With small companies (e.g. local venues, small publishers) they try to generate business via inbound/self service. Building business relationships that the incumbents don’t have can be a very valuable asset.

– Be careful building on platforms where the incumbent has demonstrated an inconsistent attitude toward developers. Apple rejects apps somewhat arbitrarily and takes a healthy share of revenues, but is generally consistent with app developers.  You can pretty safely predict what they will will allow to flourish. Twitter has been wildly inconsistent and shouldn’t be trusted as a platform.  Facebook has been mostly consistent although recently changed the rules on companies like Zynga with their new payment platform (that said, they generally seem to understand the importance of partners thriving and seem to encourage it).

– Take advantage of incumbents’ entrenched marketing positioning.  The masses think of Twitter as a place to share trivial things like what you had for lunch (even if most power users don’t use it this way) and Facebook as a place to talk to friends.  They are probably stuck with this positioning.  Normals generally think of each website as having one primary use case so if you can carve out a new use case you can distinguish yourself.

– Consider the judo strategy.  When pushed, don’t push back.  When Facebook adds features like check-ins, groups, or likes, consider interoperating with those features and building layers on top of them.

Competition is overrated

Your #1 competitor starting out will always be the BACK button, nothing else. – Garry Tan

Suppose you have an idea for a startup, and then do some research only to discover there are already similar products on the market. You become disheartened and wonder if you should abandon your idea.

In fact, the existence of competing products is a meaningful signal, but not necessarily a negative one.  Here are some things to consider.

1) Almost every good idea has already been built. Sometimes new ideas are just ahead of their time. There were probably 50 companies that tried to do viral video sharing before YouTube. Before 2005, when YouTube was founded, relatively few users had broadband and video cameras. YouTube also took advantage of the latest version of Flash that could play videos seamlessly.

Other times existing companies simply didn’t execute well. Google and Facebook launched long after their competitors, but executed incredibly well and focused on the right things. When Google launched, other search engines like Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos were focused on becoming multipurpose “portals” and had de-prioritized search (Yahoo even outsourced their search technology).

2) The fact that other entrepreneurs thought the idea was good enough to build can be a positive signal. They probably went through some kind of vetting process like talking to target users and doing some market research. By launching later, you can piggyback off the work they’ve already done. That said, you do need to be careful not to get sucked into groupthink. For example, many techies follow the dictum “build something you would use yourself,” which leads to a glut of techie-centric products. There are tons Delicious and Digg clones even though it’s not clear those sites have appeal beyond their core techie audience.

3) That other people tried your idea without success could imply it’s a bad idea or simply that the timing or execution was wrong. Distinguishing between these cases is hard and where you should apply serious thought. If you think your competitors executed poorly, you should develop a theory of what they did wrong and how you’ll do better. Group buying had been tried a hundred times, but Groupon was the first to succeed, specifically by using coupons to track sales and by acquiring the local merchants first and then getting users instead of vice versa. If you think your competitor’s timing was off, you should have a thesis about what’s changed to make now the right time. These changes could come in a variety of forms: for example, it could be that users have become more sophisticated, the prices of key inputs have dropped, or that prerequisite technologies have become widely adopted.

Startups are primarly competing against indifference, lack of awareness, and lack of understanding — not other startups. For web startups this means you should worry about users simply not coming to your site, or when they do come, hitting the BACK button.