Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Every Startup Should Ignore the Competition

(First published on the Huffington Post on May 31st, 2015)

I get asked a lot from budding entrepreneurs about how to handle "the competition" in a crowded or fast-growing market place, and I always respond with an answer that may seem counter-intuitive at first:
Ignore them.
That's right. Place as little energy, emphasis and creative capital as possible on your so-called "competition", because thinking about them takes up real estate in your mind that should be spent on strategy, taking care of your team and your customers, and to adding value to your market-space. It really comes down to three core concepts:
1. Second-Guessing Others is a Luxury you can no Longer Afford
As an entrepreneur, you have only a finite amount of time to spend obsessing about the details that will make your company truly great. Worrying about your competitors is an appealing, but low-value exercise, as it doesn't create value. If you're spending your time rolling around in the muck of every new company that claims to have your value prop (but likely doesn't), you're likely missing true blockers - lack of product/market fit, or the urgency and perceived value of the problem that your technology is solving. Or even worse, you're frittering away time that would otherwise be spent strategizing and thinking about the future.
Now I get that this is all easier said than done, and I'm not pretending to be above it all. I run a marketing tech company, and as with most fast growing spaces there is no shortage of companies trying to pretend they do what we do, and trying to steal our customers, prospects and to copy our messaging. Just this week, one such company launched a massive pay-per-click campaign on our brand name, which drove to a landing page that literally lifted words from our website!
This kind of tactic (although frustrating) should be seen for exactly what it is -a significant validation of your space, and a loud, pained declaration of the amount of hurt your success is putting on others in your market. Which should remind you to turn straight back to focus on your product, team and customers, because that's where value is created.
2. Success is not a Zero-sum game
You can spend all your time worrying about competitors, throw all your resources at out-manoeuvring them so as to crush them under the heel of your boot... and then, still lose! Neither your startup nor your marketplace is a zero sum game, and just because you beat someone else, doesn't mean you win. You win when you innovate in the right direction, have a great team, grow the right way and take care of your customers and make them successful.
I see many entrepreneurs become really obsessive about their competitors, and experiencing the highs of winning a customer from them, and then the debilitating, soul-destroying lows when a competitor puts out a press release or product announcement or - god forbid - wins a deal. So much energy can be expended on this kind of low-value obsessing, and this emotional roller-coaster can become a huge distraction. As an entrepreneur, you're already tapped out on many levels from dealing with all the moving parts of your business, it's best not to manufacture additional drama about something that is completely out of your control.
3. Know Enough not to be Blind-sided, then stop
So if you've read this far, then I've made my point and it's safe for me to take it down a notch and say - it's ok to be aware of who might be considered your competitors, but only so you won't be blindsided by their claims. This kind of information will help your sales team answer any "us versus them" questions that may come their way. But then, once you've checked this box, focus back on what's going to make your company great - product, people, and taking care of your customers. "The competition", whoever they might be on any given day, cannot consume more than ten percent of your time, ever - the barest minimum to be able to walk and talk about your competitive space and prevent your business from getting flanked and no more. Period.
If your competitors are spending their time obsessing about you, and you're spending your time obsessing about value creation, you're going to continue to be the better company. You have to keep your eye on the ball, and remember why you started the company in the first place.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

3 Things They Don't Teach you in School (But Perhaps Should)

(First published in the Huffington Post on June 19th, 2014)

In many ways, we are all entrepreneurs. Whether starting a company or building your own career inside a larger company, everyone is now arguably faced with the challenge of standing out, building a brand and creating value.
When I moved to America in the 2000's after just finishing college, I was given one piece of advice: Do what intrigues you and what you love. Don't worry about who you think you are, what you've studied and what you've been telling people that you're going to be. You'll naturally gravitate towards your strengths, and the rest will take care of itself. I had no idea what this person was talking about, but he was the only one dispensing advice, so I took it.
It turned out to be hugely helpful. Based on this, here are three things I wished I would have known when I first landed at JFK with my suitcase.
1. Chase What you Love
Most people won't know this about me, but I spent most of my childhood and teen years wanting to be an actor, and for a time right up until my early twenties, that was exactly what I did. I loved it -- it was the most fun thing you could possibly do at 16. In my time I have played many forgettable roles on Australian TV including The Nurse, the Handmaiden, the ex-girlfriend and the Japanese Surf Instructor. But after a few years I realized I wasn't in love with that world -- with the people, that life. So, when I graduated from college I realized I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out what I was going to be when I grew up. So far I have owned a small chain of vintage clothing stores in my hometown of Sydney, been a lawyer, developed online video content and once had a conversation with Harvey Keitel about an underpants sponsorship during the course of business.
Point being, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the one you love, and the same thing is true in business. You know it when you find it, and if you're not sure, keep looking. Years pass before you know it, and you don't want to be that person that we all know, who's always talking about leaving their job, but never does. Before you know it, the role you took that was meant to last you two years has gone on for five, then ten, and the life you expected to have, is no closer to you.
2. Jump Before You're Perfectly Ready
Andrew Carnegie once said, "the gods send thread for a web begun."
Jumping is probably the most important skill of all. It involves moving outside of your safety, and making a leap even if you don't have all the blanks filled in. I speak to a lot of budding entrepreneurs who tell me that they just need these few things to happen before they can bust out on their own. But the truth is, those things will never happen, as long as they stay in their current situation. You have to just have faith and jump.
I resigned from a great job to start Shareablee, and many of my friends thought I was insane. I probably was -- I had no idea how to raise money or how to scale a company on my own, but I knew that I would never learn those things if I kept on doing what I was already doing. And that first morning after I'd quit and I woke up and went downstairs with my coffee to work on my company, I wondered why I'd taken so long.
At that stage, my idea for the company was to post social content on behalf of small businesses, because I figured that the enterprise space must already have this social thing figured out. I was wrong on both counts. I learned quickly that I knew nothing about SMB's -- I didn't know how to sell to them, how to service them, even how to hire the right people who knew these things. And after a very emotional business owner called my cellphone at 1 a.m. to fire me for redirecting his customers from Facebook to this site called Bit.ly -- who he assumed was a competitor -- I accepted that we had to pivot.
The great thing about getting it wrong the first time was that in the process of trying to execute, I learned the marketplace needed. I learned how freakishly hard it was to decide what to write and how to tweak content, and how to do all that with a lens on your competition. So instead, we went out and built that product, that became the company that we have today.
Jumping also meant sharing the data, sample insights and really unpolished betas well before I thought it was my best work. I had to get comfortable with 'scrappy and functional,' and remind myself that building a business is not a school project that I was going to get graded on. As one of my investors told me, this is binary, ones and zeros. People would either buy it or they wouldn't, and that would be that. No pressure.
Luckily for us, they bought it, and we grew faster than we'd imagined. But none of that would have happened if I hadn't tried to sell a social media posting service to small businesses and got yelled at.
3. Tell Everyone Your Ideas
I often hear people say about their ideas or their new companies: "I can't talk about it yet." Usually, this person believes it's possible for someone else to steal an idea, as though there is anything intrinsically valuable in an idea worth stealing in the first place. I'm going to go out there on a limb and say that if your idea is so flimsy that someone can hear it once and go execute on it as well as you could have, it probably wasn't much chop to begin with. I know that can sound harsh, but I believe it to be true.
When I began Shareablee, I told everyone I knew about what I was doing. You never know who can help you, and it turned out that one of the people I told became our first client. Others ended up working for us, or referring us to great people who we since hired or consulted with, or went on to become clients too. People want to help, and talking openly enables that to happen.
The other benefit of telling everyone what you're doing is you get leverage on yourself to follow through. It can be scary to openly declare what you want to do because you're opening yourself up to judgment and very public failure. But that's a great motivator. No one wants to be that person who says they're going to do something and doesn't do it. So say what you're going to do, and make it really painful for yourself to go back on your word.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tonight's event: Discussion with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner & NYTimes Columnist Adam Bryant

Jeff Weiner, CEO LinkedIn and NYT Columnist Adam Bryant
It's hard not to be impressed by Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linkedin.

Even in my harried and slightly disheveled state (long day, launching a new company, new haircut not quite adjusting to my face, a whole host of other creative excuses for not feeling like I want to get out to a hosted event), I was struck by the refreshing simplicity of his advice and inspired to take down copious notes. For anyone watching, no, I was not multitasking or catching up on email :)

My biggest takeaway was the importance of dedicated thinking time, and allowing yourself enough space to reflect, plan and not just be in reactive mode. Easy to say, not always so easy to do. I have surely been guilty of flattering myself that I'm too busy to stop and take a moment. I have so many meetings! So much to do! Everything is code red, so very important now now now!

So when the CEO of Linkedin, a publicly listed company with over three thousand employees servicing nearly 200 million customers says:

"Carve out at least two to three hours of thinking time each day. One hour of buffer time is never enough",

it makes me wonder if I couldn't manage a similar routine. How might my decisions, even my life, be different? Surely I can't say Jeff is less busy than I am. My schedule could not truly be more demanding. If he can do it, I can do it!

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn

It linked in (excuse pun) with his other suggestion, to deliberately become a spectator to your own thoughts when you feel yourself getting riled up. In order to muster that kind of separation, you need some breathing space. Hence the buffer time.

Some other notable bits of advice:

 - Be grateful for at least one thing each day
 - Surround yourself with the absolute best people you can find
 - Always be learning
 - Maintain a childlike sense of wonder your entire life.

Right before we closed, Adam gave Jeff the opportunity to answer any question he thought he should have been asked. Jeff replied a little sheepishly, "What about, what makes me happy?"

Jeff then listed family, and the importance of loving what you do. If you're not sure what you want to do, ask yourself what you want to be able to say about what you do twenty to thirty years from now? If you still don't know, optimize for passion and skill (equally).

"I do not think enough people optimize for happiness in their career and home life. There's nothing better than not being able to wait to get to work, and then not being able to wait to get home'.