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You — Not Your Competitors — Define Your Destiny

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When I was a little boy, my grandfather gave me some advice: He suggested I always march to the rhythm of my own drum. While he said it made perfect sense for me to appreciate others and what they did, in the end what would make me unique was me. Of course, I was too little to quite understand what he meant. Soon thereafter, he passed away. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started to appreciate his wisdom.

Why do I bring this up? Because I increasingly see companies, both big and small, often focusing too much on their competitors and not focusing on being unique. A few weeks ago, when I stopped by at the Square offices, COO Keith Rabois, in response to a question about his competition, succinctly said it was what he and his company does which will determine the outcome for the company.

If one sets the rules, then there is a distinct advantage when it comes to winning. However, if a company spends all its energy trying to be the same as another, it has already lost the game. It’s letting someone else define the agenda. Instead of trying to be great at what they do, companies start to come-up with reactive and mediocre strategies that are well, mediocre.

Let’s take this year’s big news: tablets, or rather, rivals of Apple’s iPad. HP announced its WebOS-based TouchPad. Motorola announced Xoom, which is powered by Google’s Honeycomb tablet-oriented Android OS. There are scores of others that have been announced and/or are waiting in the wings. They all have one thing in common: They are desperately trying to be the iPad. HP couldn’t resist using “pad” in the name. Others may not have the name, but are essentially trying to beat iPad on what was known in the PC world as “feeds and speeds.”

The problem is that the minute Apple announces its rumored iPad 2, all these devices are going to take on a look of last season’s couture. What Apple does so well is that it doesn’t pay too much attention to what others are doing, and instead, builds what it feels is the right product. Same goes for other iconic brands such as Mercedes.

The big companies can be excused for catching this “keep up with Joneses” disease, but what is inexcusable is startups spending all their energy on trying to keep tabs on their competitors, taking a cue from their rivals (and often copying them) and in the process, not focusing on what really matters: their product and strategy as it relates to their customers.

In my professional career, especially as an entrepreneur, I found that whenever I did things my way, I found not only great satisfaction, but also found an edge that was entirely my own. When I’ve deviated from that approach, I’ve found things have started to go wrong. Today, the world of news is commoditized and has turned into churnalism; the way we stand out is by focusing on analysis and our own unique twist on news. It might not be for everyone’s taste, but there are many who find that useful.

In my favorite TV show, House, Dr. Lisa Cuddy, when trying to convince Dr. House that they should be together, said that what they had was unique and not common. “Because common is just common.” Next time, remember that.

App of the Day:

I am taking a day off from the world of mobile apps and recommending a Chrome extension called It is incredibly simple way to find and listen to music when you surf through music blogs. I do that all the time and makes it very easy for me to create an easy-to-organize library of songs (without bothering to download them) and also share the songs with my friends. The user interface could be a little simpler, but’s benefits outweigh the design shortcomings.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Eoghan OLionnain

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21 Responses to “You — Not Your Competitors — Define Your Destiny”

  1. Thanks for writing this, Om.  I think as we see the money flow back (and recycle) into & across the Valley we are going to be at a tremendous crossroads…again. There is an opportunity to pull forward the future and make our unique insights/capabilities real, rather than take the more predictable & disappointing route you highlight.

    In my mind, companies are very much like people. Your grandfather’s advice is wise, but will only work for people self-actualized enough to know deeply their unique gifts and brave enough to stray from the herd. Too many companies lack leadership with this level of insight & courage. I applaud your challenge for all of us to aspire to something greater . . . and less predictable–we might be delighted by the outcome.

  2. Good points OM.

    The way I think about it is: If your leading – which should be your goal as a startup – your competitors need to worry about you, not you about them….Conversely, if you find yourself worrying about your competitors, you’re likely no longer leading

  3. The article is very resourceful. Its recent trend that individual/companies are driven by what competitors is doing/will do !!

    One should believe in his/her self.. I would print/bookmark this article for reference. thanks for wonderful article.

  4. I wonder if Apple would be the same original company without Steve Jobs. It’s interesting how one person can give a new direction to a whole organization, and it’s interesting that these people are rather few and far between. Yet it’s true, they give the true value, the rest are imitating. Not to be mistaken though, there’s a lot of money in imitating :))

    • Aloys

      I do believe that they would fine in the short term without Steve, however things are going to be different if he (and some of the other senior managers) leave the company. I think it is unavoidable because these senior managers provide directional cues for rest of the outfit. I do believe that have a deep bench. a very deep bench indeed.

  5. On what happens to our lives, it is our own doing. We are responsible to what might be the outcome of our single step. Thus to be successful, it truly depends on you. No one’s to be blame but yourself. No matter how other people make your life miserable, if you let them, they’d be successful and you’d be the loser. Sometimes you need to be strong enough to withstand pain, surpass trials and when you fall down, stand up and never surrender. Raise your head up high, pray and you’d be successful in due time.

  6. Vijay Pandey

    In India, we say, “When Elephant walks, Dogs bark”. Apple is an Elephant, so is/was Nokia.

    Nokia never bothered about America, Apple, Android & kept doing its own thing. It is still a world leader by a huge margin, as we speak. It would have remained so for years, being #1 in Europe/Middle-East/Africa/Asia and most importantly emerging markets. So what made them buckle, I believe the noise unsettled them. What happens to Nokia will be an interesting case study.

    Likewise, it would be interesting to see, where Apple’s finds itself 3 years after Steve’s departure. They might give in to the competition, like they just did today, by re-approving readability app.

    So, while I agree, one must do his own thing but there is no guarantee that this will bring you success. One has to understand the market dynamics and evolve accordingly. My 2 cents.

    • I agree with Vijay here. Steve Jobs leadership has been critical to Apple’s success. I think to be successful in a open market you need to ensure both reactive and proactive strategies are adopted. The strategic decisions are totally different in one company to another. But, it is how you put in motion those strategies will ultimately define success or failure.

    • Om,

      I could not agree more strongly with your message. I lived my 25 years as an entrepreneur with that same strategy, and found it consistently led to success. For me the primary emphasis was on listening to our customers, and secondarily focusing on creating a great environment for our employees.

      Focusing on competitors leads to products that are one step behind the market, not to market changing new ideas. It can also strike fear into an entrepreneur’s heart, and paralyze them.

      – David

  7. Great piece Om! I absolutely agree on this. From my personal experience of running our cloud backup services, I can say that we did stay away from the unlimited storage in online backup, and it was proved right after nearly 5 years by Mozy that it is impossible to make money with unlimited and changed their course just recently.
    You may or may not become the largest or the biggest, but you will have loyal followers, and you will derive great satisfaction at doing things your way rather than follow competition.

    Raghu Kulkarni,

  8. Or, put another way, how many photo sharing apps, find you friends at the bar geo apps, and me to YASNs (yet another social network, which however, are starting be sorted by the big giant head, FB), and yet with consumer hardware, there has to be some following on to fill the market.

    I think even apple has not realized the full maturity, not all of the peculiar use cases of the tablet. They all, Apple included, seems to be emulating standard computer use modalities, which is fine, but I think we are in for a long term renaissance. And I am not taking all verticals, either.

    • Alan

      As always you do have a way of cutting through it all and hitting the bone hard. Keep leaving this comments for us to share. I am sure that there is a lot of people who would agree with you including myself.

      One thing I would disagree with you is that Apple doesn’t know that it needs to encourage different behavior. As a owner of the platform, they should count on the app developers to develop post computer use behaviors on their platform.