Why Small Businesses Should Never Claim to Have No Competition When thinking this way, it becomes quickly obvious that you're not understanding the big picture.
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Written by Isabelle Dann, Media Strategy Director, Aspectus Group
During interviews, journalists will often ask a startup or scaleup who its competitors are. When fundraising, investors ask the same question. A common mistake is to claim that you have no competition, based on creating something brand new. Don't be deceived: every company has competitors.
For founders, it can be easy to perceive competition only in terms of a like-for-like business — but this trap must be avoided. Instead, they must consider what exists currently that their product could displace.
Even Henry Ford had competitors when he launched his first car; they were called horses. Fast-forward to today, Netflix's CEO has cited sleep as the main competition. For companies of all sizes and stages — but particularly small businesses that people might not be familiar with — the key is to recognise and own that you have competition. What's more, failure to do so can be costly.
Case in point: once, when pitching a funding announcement, a journalist at a top-tier publication expressed an interest in potentially covering, but (understandably) refused when — on asking the company who their competitors were — the interviewee insisted they didn't have any competitors. It was a small round and so, the journalist explained, they were on the fence about covering anyway — but that sealed the deal.
Here are three smart strategies for communicating about competition that will make you stand out from the crowd and prevent you from missing coverage opportunities.
1. Recognise the value of competition — and different types.
First, take a moment to contemplate the merits of competition. Decent competition suggests you have a product that appeals to a sizable demographic, that people genuinely want, and is needed right now. It's easy to underestimate the importance of these attributes, yet a lack of demand is one of the leading causes of startup failure, responsible for a staggering 35 percent of failed startups — second only to running out of cash (38 percent).
From here, it's paramount to recognise the different types of competition: direct, indirect, and replacement. Direct competition comes in the form of a business that provides a similar product or service. Think Coke versus Pepsi, or Gmail versus Outlook. In contrast, indirect competition can be defined as a comparable offering but in a different sphere of the same market. Think horses versus Ford, or Starbucks versus a Nespresso machine.
Beyond this, there's replacement competition, which is a substitute for the offering in question; there's no need for either to be operating in the same sector and, initially, replacement competitors are typically not discernible. This is sleep versus Netflix, or a book versus the Final Fantasy VII Remake.
2. Focus on your positives, not their negatives, and tell a global story.
Now, for the main event: how to communicate why you're so special? First and foremost, avoid talking negatively about competitors. Instead, opt for positive statements that highlight the benefits of your own positioning, hinting at competitor failings in the process.
Take e-scooters, for example. Rather than saying a rival outsources all manufacturing to an anonymous factory a continent away, pointing fingers, an e-scooter company could highlight how they build all vehicles in-house. Or rather than relying on the gig economy, underline how all staff are employed directly by the company in question.
To build on this, position your business in a broader context. Even if your rollout is strictly local for the foreseeable future, successful marketing strategies encompass an international approach. This means storytelling with a global mindset from the beginning. In food delivery, for example, widespread consolidation in the US could foreshadow similar trends in Europe — how might that affect a Berlin-based company's product roadmap? Or, in fintech, what can emerging Latin American markets learn from the UK's dominance in open banking?
In an increasingly weightless world, every opportunity has global elements. Communicating any competitive offering should be done with that in mind. As such, when trying to convince anyone to care about your achievements, it's critical to paint a holistic picture.
3. Stay continuously updated on your industry.
For both internal and external communications, make it apparent that you're up to date on competition in all aspects. If you can present yourself as a meaningful expert on industry evolution, you'll not only cut through the noise but also form long-term relationships with journalists, who'll come back to you as a trusted source of information in a continuously evolving field.
To make this happen, there are some simple but effective practices worth adopting. To start, set up Google or Talkwalker alerts for your competitors to stay informed about their news and what other people are writing about them. Do the same for specific verticals and sub-sectors, such as "healthtech" and "telemedicine", or "chatbots" and "artificial intelligence".
Next, if you're not there already, get on Twitter. Even if you don't tweet anything yourself, it's the best place to follow the work and conversations of target journalists you're trying to reach. Consequently, it's an indirect way of keeping up with your competition through their corresponding coverage.
Finally, don't forget that — when it comes to communications — competition exists outside of earned and owned media. Search engine marketing (SEM) is a prime example; those who overlook bidding competitors do so at their peril. These could be companies selling in the same space but not the same audience, bidding on the same search terms as a result.
Some particularly search-savvy brands go the extra sneaky mile and bid on their competitor's brand names — so, when a prospect searches for the competing company, the rival's paid ad appears. While this tactic isn't recommended, it's good to be aware of it and check if it's happening to your own brand.
Regardless of the type of competition, what should underpin all communications is a clear narrative of the problem you're solving, how you've solved this problem to date, and how you'll continue to solve it in future. Combine this with a progressive timeline suffused with milestones and you'll carve out a compelling story, free from hype, that people remember for all the right reasons.