Know Your Competition

Competitions are everywhere. Whether you are trying to get a job, grow your subscribers, raise funding, or get a new gig—you are part of a competition.

Your ultimate goal is to build a monopoly, and get out of the competition. Google has a monopoly in search. WhatsApp has a monopoly in messaging. But none of them were monopolies straight out of the box. In order to build a monopoly, you have to start out by being aware of the competition.

Whenever there’s a finite resource, there’s competition. It’s not important to lose your sleep over that, but it would be foolish to ignore it. Knowing where you are standing is important, because that helps you find leverage, and build a specific strategy.

The first step is to identify what kind of competition you are in. DuckDuckGo is in direct competition with Google and Bing in the search engine market. At work, you are in direct competition with your peers for the next promotion. In the job searching market, you are in direct competition with every other candidate.

Learn the criteria of winning early on so that you can identify your leverage. In competitive exams, scoring high is the only criteria—so you should know all the tricks required to get correct answers faster than others. But you also have personal strengths such as ability to study longer hours, or learn new things quickly. Coupling your strengths with the winning criteria gives you leverage. It’s impossible to copy that.

Similarly, while raising money, winning criteria—such as business growth, good unit economics, and a resourceful team—when coupled with your product’s USP, gives you leverage.

Once you identify the criteria, devise multiple strategies to attain it. For example, the project management app Basecamp finds new customers via their strong brand, word of mouth, the team’s opinionated tweets and articles, and the wildly successful books written by the founders. If one channels fails, another can kick in. This is indispensable in the early days of a startup.

No matter which competition you are in, others have cracked it multiple times. Try to learn from them. IIT entrance exams are hard, but thousands of students have cracked them year after year. Their advice can be found on various online forums, coaching classes, personal interviews, and YouTube videos. Even if your business is a first mover, there will be similar businesses in adjacent domains. Airbnb was a category of its own, but they had the hotel/resort business and the travel industry to learn from.

But no matter how good you are, you will not win all the competitions. In India, hundreds of thousands appear for the Civil Services Examination every year. Only a fraction gets in. It’s natural to feel discouraged when you don’t make it. Here are these gatekeepers to your future, and they don’t think you are cut out for the job. It’s bound to hurt! Howard Schultz was turned down 242 times for a loan to start Starbucks. Walt Disney’s theme park idea was trashed 302 times. It sucked for them as well. But there are a few lessons here.

The first lesson is that the gatekeepers—your bosses, startup accelerators, VC funds, entrance exam conductors—are imperfect. All of them are doing their best with incomplete information. They are bound to make mistakes.

The second lesson is that a No for now is not a No forever. If you didn’t get into one startup accelerator, you can apply in another one. If you don’t get this time, you can apply next time. It’s not over!

Take a No is a Maybe. Especially when there’s a human involved. If you didn’t get that promotion, you can have a chat with your boss, and see if you can turn things around. If that VC rejects your presentation deck, send them a video instead. People have biases. Exploit them.

When things don’t work, you are likely to feel that the world is against you; that the game is rigged. Truth be told, the game is rigged. It has always been, and isn’t changing anytime soon. Many people choose to ignore the competition, and stop playing the game. That may save them temporarily from pain, but won’t solve the problem. You are in the game, even if you ignore the competition.

The counterintuitive advice is to be aware of the competition you are in, without losing your sleep over it. Because if you play it well, the odds maybe in your favour. But if you don’t, you will lose.

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