Compete with No One

Peace VanToday’s commercial environment is fierce.  All companies have aggressive growth objectives that must be achieved at all costs.  But there’s a problem – within any industry, when the growth goals are summed across competitors, there are simply too few customers to support everyone’s growth goals.  Said another way, there are too many competitors trying to eat the same pie.  In most industries it’s fierce hand-to-hand combat for single-point market share gains, and it’s a zero sum game – my gain comes at your loss.   Companies surge against each other and bloody skirmishes break out over small slivers of the same pie.

The apex of this glorious battle is reached when companies no longer have points of differentiation and resort to competing on price.  This is akin to attrition warfare where heavy casualties are taken on both sides until the loser closes its doors and the winner emerges victorious and emaciated.  This race to the bottom can only end one way – badly for everyone.

Trench warfare is no way for a company to succeed, and it’s time for a better way.  Instead of competing head-to-head, it’s time to compete with no one.

To start, define the operating envelope (range of inputs and outputs) for all the products in the market of interest.  Once defined, this operating envelope is off limits and the new product must operate outside the established design space.  By definition, because the new product will operate with input conditions that no one else’s can and generate outputs no one else can, the product will compete with no one.

In a no-to-yes way, where everyone’s product says no, yours is reinvented to say yes.  You sell to customers no one else can; you sell into applications no one else can; you sell functions no one else can.  And in a wicked googly way, you say no to functions that no one else would dare.  You define the boundary and operate outside it like no one else can.

Competing against no one is a great place to be – it’s as good as trench warfare is bad – but no one goes there.  It’s straightforward to define the operating windows of products, and, once define it’s straightforward to get the engineers to design outside the window.  The hard part is the market/customer part.  For products that operate outside the conventional window, the sales figures are the lowest they can be (zero) and there are just as many customers (none).  This generates extreme stress within the organization.  The knee-jerk reaction is to assign the wrong root cause to the non-existent sales.  The mistake – “No one sells products like that today, so there’s no market there.”  The truth – “No one sells products like that today because no one on the planet makes a product like that today.”

Once that Gordian knot is unwound, it’s time for the marketing community to put their careers on the line.  It’s time to push the organization toward the scary abyss of what could be very large new market, a market where the only competition would be no one.  And this is the real hard part – balancing the risk of a non-existent market with the reward of a whole new market which you’d call your own.

If slugging it out with tenacious competitors is getting old, maybe it’s time to compete with no one.  It’s a different battle with different rules.  With the old slug-it-out war of attrition, there’s certainty in how things will go – it’s certain the herd will be thinned and it’s certain there’ll be heavy casualties on all fronts.  With new compete-with-no-one there’s uncertainty at every turn, and excitement. It’s a conflict governed by flexibility, adaptability, maneuverability and rapid learning.  Small teams work in a loosely coordinated way to test and probe through customer-technology learning loops using rough prototypes and good judgement.

It’s not practical to stop altogether with the traditional market share campaign – it pays the bills – but it is practical to make small bets on smart people who believe new markets are out there.  If you’re lucky enough to have folks willing to put their careers on the line, competing with no one is a great way to create new markets and secure growth for future generations.

Image credit – mae noelle

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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