Who Cares What Your Competitors Are Building?

Think studying your competitors’ products and copying their best features is the best way to drive growth? Think again. As PopSurvey and Temper founder Josh Pigford explains, being a features copycat often leads companies down a one-way street to stagnation.

Stop Focusing Too Much on Competitive Product Analysis

At some point, most of us have experienced “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome.

Your neighbor renovates their kitchen, and you feel like you should, too. Your coworker buys a flashy new BMW, and all of a sudden your sensible sedan starts to lose its appeal. To a degree, it’s human nature. But left unchecked it can be quite a destructive and expensive game to play — especially when you run a software company and the Joneses are your competitors.

Stop Focusing Too Much on Competitive Product Analysis

“Many growing companies seem to build products out of fear,” says Josh Pigford, founder and CEO of PopSurvey and Temper. “They see their competitors design a feature, so they feel like they need to do the same or they’ll be left behind when prospective buyers begin comparing their products.”

Unfortunately, that reactionary approach to software development isn’t just counterintuitive, it’s also typically a huge waste of time and resources.

Yes, tech companies should be aware of what their competitors are doing and which features they add to their products, Pigford says. But constantly playing a game of catch-up is one that growth-stage companies rarely win.

“If you play the features game, you will forever be behind,” explains Pigford, who has founded several other tech startups in addition to his survey software business. “You won’t be spending the bulk of your time building your own things and you may develop a reputation in your market as a features copycat. That is not good for your brand, particularly if you are a smaller business trying to stand out.”

Be an Innovator, Not a Copycat

So, if keeping tabs on competing features and implementing them into your product is an ineffective approach to software development, what should growing software companies do instead?

Innovate.

“All too often, customers don’t really need those features.”

Josh Pigford

Josh Pigford, founder of PopSurvey and Temper

“I know that’s easy to say, but it’s the truth,” Pigford says. “The most successful software companies are hard-wired to innovate, even as they grow. So rather than having to play catch-up, they set the pace, creating features and products that other companies want to mimic.”

More importantly, Pigford says, businesses should be focused on creating and implementing things that their customers — not someone else’s — want or need. That might seem like an argument for incorporating competing features into your products, Pigford says, but that’s not what he means.

“A lot of times, a customer will see a feature on another company’s software and tell you that they want you to build it into yours,” Pigford explains. “But all too often, customers don’t really need those features. They simply fall in love with the idea or the newness of them.”

So, instead of saying yes to those customers every time they ask you to copy a competitor’s feature, Pigford suggests staying ahead of those requests by following the same product development philosophy that led to your company’s founding in the first place.

“Most entrepreneurs forget that they started their company to solve a unique problem or to create a product that did X, Y, or Z better than the competition,” Pigford says. “Customers began paying for that unique value and the company grew from there. So why not continue to execute that strategy by perpetually evaluating your customer’s needs and pain points, and investing time into developing unique ways to address those issues?”

Swim swim swim

Why Swimming Upstream Can Lead to a Big Payoff

When Pigford founded PopSurvey, he did so knowing that he was facing an uphill battle against a hoard of well-funded competitors in a saturated market.

The quicker you give failing features the ax, the better

Simplified Design: De-Clutter Your Product

De-Clutter Your Product

For some, that decision may have seemed insane. But Pigford says he simply recognized an opportunity to do something differently than every other provider in the survey software market.

“Most survey products offer this massive list of features that, for the most part, every business has,” Pigford says. “We decided not to follow that path. We kept our software really simple and positioned our product as a very simplified, less bloated solution for customers who didn’t need or want that complexity.”

So far, that strategy has helped PopSurvey stand out more than it would have if it tried to copy its competitors’ feature lists.

“I think any time you see a company disrupting a certain space — like Square with payments or Apple with the any one of its products — it’s often because that company ignored the way that things had been done and chose to do it the way they wanted to,” Pigford says. “Conversely, there are a number of companies that have faded out of the spotlight over the years because they played the features game and failed to continue innovating.”

What do you think? Should you allow the competitive landscape to dictate your product development strategy?

Share Your Thoughts

  • Lalonie Farnell

    Great article, when we first started our website, we were tempted to try to do what our perceived competition was doing. Now, we have much more fun and passion being original with our concepts and merchandising. It is really starting to pay off.

  • http://www.markevans.ca/ Mark Evans

    I agree that spending too much time worrying about what rivals are doing can be counter-productive because it consumes time and energy. Here’s a post I did recently: http://www.markevans.ca/2013/08/27/startup-rivals/

  • Chris Beall

    Great post. As a company grows and becomes more sales driven it is easy to take every competitive loss and attribute it to a missing feature that needs to be on the roadmap ASAP. The result is that innovative capabilities get displaced by “me too” features, and the innovators o get fed up and head for their next startup. Once that happens, innovation is no longer a practical option.