Earlier this week, I shared the product discovery document we use at Buffer and explained how we use it. Since adopting it, we have improved our prioritization and provided more clarity for the team. If you are a paying subscriber, you can find it here. Otherwise, feel free to grab a subscription here.
As a product marketer, I often think about how to positioning Buffer and how we can differentiate our product from our competitors. I had learned about Michael Porter's theories in high school, and I thought they aren't relevant to startups. When I revisited his theories recently, I realized I couldn't have been more wrong.
What is the best _____ software?
What is the best design software?
What is the best social media management software?
What is the best SEO software?
What is the best email marketing software?
What is the best payment gateway?
You likely have some answers in your mind right now. Are they the best? Or just the best for you? If there is truly a best ____ software, it should be the only one left in the market because everyone would be using it only.
But that isn't the reality.
Each market is usually made up of several big players and many small players. They co-exist together because each serves one segment (or a few) better than the rest. I came across this analysis of the e-commerce platform market, which describes just that:
BigCommerce is Shopify’s biggest competitor due to its huge range of powerful sales features, while Wix is best for smaller businesses looking for greater creative freedom. WooCommerce is self-hosted, which brings technical challenges but gives you more control. Squarespace has stunning designs, while Volusion has great analytics. Square Online Store takes the cake for value, and Weebly is ideal for entrepreneurs.
Competing to be the best is not a great business strategy.
Compete to be unique
Joan Magretta, who gave a good summary of Michael Porter's ideas in her book, Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy, wrote (emphasis mine):
Here’s the problem: When rivals all pursue the “one best way” to compete, they find themselves on a collision course, trapped in a destructive, zero-sum competition that no one can win. Everyone in the industry follows the same advice. Companies benchmark each other’s practices and products. Customers, lacking meaningful choice, buy on price alone. Profitability deteriorates.
Instead, Porter urges a different kind of competition: compete to be unique. Focus on innovating to create superior value for your chosen customers, not on imitating and matching rivals. Give customers real choice and price becomes only one competitive variable. But understand that doing this profitably means accepting limits and making tradeoffs — you can’t meet every need of every customer. Nothing is more absurd — and yet more widespread — than the belief that somehow you can do exactly what everyone else is doing and yet end up with superior results.
I think it's worth repeating the last sentence:
Nothing is more absurd — and yet more widespread — than the belief that somehow you can do exactly what everyone else is doing and yet end up with superior results.
Yet that's how many startups choose to compete—build a software similar to those in the market, with similar features, thinking theirs will somehow be better. I'm seeing a bit of this at Buffer right now. While we introduced the novel Queue concept for social media management many years ago, we are mostly trying to catch up with other players in the space now.
Playing catchup doesn't feel like a wise business strategy. Selfishly, it also makes my work as a product marketer harder because I'll be marketing things that competitors have launched and marketed some time ago.
What can we do?
Find your unique position in the market
The email marketing space is saturated with big players. But one little startup found a unique and unoccupied position in the market and grew to $22 million annual recurring revenue in just six years with only 50 people.
That little startup is ConvertKit.
Do you know the difference between Infusionsoft, ActiveCampaign, and MailerLite? They are all a version of "powerful all-in-one email marketing software with automation."
Mailchimp and AWeber go a little further by being an "email marketing platform for small businesses." Klaviyo and Drip are an "email marketing platform for e-commerce businesses."
ConvertKit is the email marketing platform for creators.
Nathan Barry, the founder of ConvertKit, was a creator himself, consistently making $250,000 every year by selling books and courses. But he realized that creators are unserved by all existing email marketing software. So he built ConvertKit with features that creators need but that other email marketing software didn't want to build. Features like having multiple forms for a single email list, offering opt-in incentives on forms, and editing email courses in a single window.
If you're a creator, ConvertKit becomes a clear choice among all the email marketing tools (unless you want to use hacky workarounds to make things work).
Focusing on a niche allowed ConvertKit to take on major players in the email marketing space.
Looking back at our Buffer Analyze launch, I realized I made the mistake of positioning Buffer Analyze as a generic social media analytics tool, just like our competitors. Our early users love how easy it is to create modern, visual reports in just a few clicks. I was worried that the value proposition is too narrow. In hindsight, I should have honed in on that unique strength.
But finding a unique position in the market is not enough.
If your competitors can copy your product and features, they will reduce your uniqueness. For example, several email marketing software like Mailchimp have since built features that only ConvertKit used to have.
To sustain your competitive advantage, you have to do things that your competitors will never do.
Take on activities that competitors won't
Is there room for another note-taking tool?
Well, there are already big players like Evernote, Notion, and Bear. Surely it'll be hard to compete as a new note-taking tool. That is true if you have a generic note-taking software with folders and documents like the big players.
Roam Research not only found a unique position in the note-taking space but it also built its product in a way that its competitors will never copy.
Unlike most note-taking tool, Roam Research doesn't have folders. Instead, it uses a graph concept, which is closer to how our brain works than folders. Whenever you link one page to another, the latter would automatically be linked to the former, too. Rather than having your notes in neatly organized folders, you have a graph of information.
Competitors like Evernote, Notion, and Bear are built on the notion that notes should be organized in folders. They will never remove their folder structure because it is their core value.
Roam Research doesn't have to worry the big players will simply assemble a team and copy its features. They never will.
When you are unique from your competitors, you technically aren't competing with them anymore. And your customers could potentially use your software and your competitors'.
Hey by Basecamp is also built in a way its competitors will never copy.
The Basecamp team re-thought how emails should be done and want to give control back to the user. It automatically blocks all pixel tracking. Instead of receiving all emails sent to you, you get to screen and choose who can email you. Notifications are off by default, and you can choose to get notifications for emails from specific people or threads.
On the other hand, Superhuman prides itself on being able to inform you when someone reads your email. Gmail puts ads in your inbox. To copy Hey's features is to weaken their key selling point or to hinder their growth. It's unlikely they would.
Companies can go a step further by hiring differently, too.
I came across this tweet the other day and thought it's an interesting example of taking on activities that your competitors won't.
Figma created a defensible competitive advantage by using a unique technology stack that few people know. To copy Figma's product, competitors might have to rebuild their entire software with the same technology stack. Even if they want to, they might not be able to hire engineers who know how to do that because few engineers know that stack.
Analyze your whole value chain
The way to sustain a competitive advantage isn't just finding a unique positioning or building your product in a certain way. It is the combination of everything you do as a company. The more unique activities you take on, the harder it is for your competitors to copy you and the better you can sustain your competitive advantage.
But finding your unique position in the market is a good first step. When you know the niche you want to serve, you can then build your product and your company in a way that perhaps your competitors won't.
Don't compete to be the best. Compete to be unique.