I’m intrigued with Steve Thoeny’s comment earlier this week to my post about market research. Steve quoted Joel Spolsky, Co-founder Stack Exchange, and one of my favorite writers, with this suggestion:
Talk to your customers. Find out what they need. Don’t pay any attention to the competition. They’re not relevant to you.
I love Joel’s (and Steve’s) advice about talking to customers. I couldn’t agree more. That’s right on point and good advice.
And I’m intrigued with his take on competition. It reminds me of what Emmett Ramey, founder of Oasis Press, said years ago when we had competing offerings:
The way I see it, we’re standing on a pier, side by side, fishing. I don’t care about the fish sniffing your bait. I’m worried about the ones near mine. And there are plenty of fish for both of us.
That made sense then. We were selling two competing offerings into the same market.
On the other hand, watching for competition is like watching what the fish like. If the fish like salmon eggs and you’re fishing with cheese, get the hint. Sometimes looking at competition is like taking a fresh look at your own business.
It’s been a back and forth problem since personal computing started in the late 1970s. Some technical standards make things easier for everybody; but they also dampen competition, creativity, and innovation.
Standardizing operating systems in personal computers made a better market for software developers and software users. When MS-DOS took over in the middle 1980s, and became a standard, suddenly “PC Compatible” meant something. There were more programs, more options, more tools for developers. When Apple brought out the early Macintosh, it also brought out a new standard, and a problem for developers. Do we move to the new operating system?
Nowadays we have the Mac, Windows, and Linux. We have the iPhone, and windows mobile, and Palm, and now Android. We have Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera, Chrome … the Wii, PlayStation, etc. Software developers have to choose. Consumers have to choose. There are different mini markets. Guess wrong, and your business is out of luck.
Sometimes I like it. Competition keeps everybody sharp. And then there’s something available for what I don’t have, that isn’t available for what I do have. And all kinds of cables and power chords and plug-ins left over. What do you think: best of all possible worlds? Competition over all? Or standards and compatibility? Seems like it’s one or the other, but never both.