Most businesses self destruct Jason 25 Jul 2006

13 comments Latest by John

A few weeks back I was invited to speak at a TiE Event here in Chicago. The panel included Lucas Roh, CEO of Hostway, Mike Domeck, CEO of Ticketsnow, and mysef. It was moderated by Matt McCall of Portage Ventures.

I really enjoyed being on the panel and learning from the other panelists. We all have different backgrounds, different businesses, and different ways of running our businesses. Lucas and Mike are sharp.

Out of everything that was said, one thing really stuck with me. When Lucas was asked how he deals with the heated competition in the web hosting space, he said, and I’m partially-paraphrasing, “We just do what we do best. We focus on our business, our customers, and our vision. Most businesses self destruct anyway so we just make sure ours doesn’t. Focusing too much on what everyone else is doing is a sure way to run your own business out of control.” I really loved that.

He’s spot on. Most businesses self destruct anyway. They focus on the wrong things, they chase the wrong ideas, they fight the “more more more” cold war. The only company that wins the cold war is the one with the most resources. Everyone else loses. Who wants to fight that war? Kathy Sierra touched on this a few days ago.

Yes, you have to pay attention to what’s going on out there, but I’d argue you need to pay more attention to what’s going on in here. In your own company. In your own products. In yourself and your own vision. Are you delivering your products or your competition’s products with a different coat of paint? Believe in what you’re doing, deliver on that vision, and chart your own course. Don’t worry too much about everyone else. Be a great chef and deliver your own signature dishes — don’t just deliver another burger. Maybe you’ll be right, maybe you’ll be wrong, but it’s certainly a lot more satisfying than losing the expensive, frustrating, dangerous cold war.

13 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Brandon 25 Jul 06

Spot on…

Robert Dewey 25 Jul 06

On the same lines as feature creep.

Dan Boland 25 Jul 06

In other words, the T in SWOT should be lowercase.

Mark 25 Jul 06

I think that in the corporate world, the cold war of “more” is not between companies trying to out do one another, but rather the battle is between the company and its investors — with the investors, of course, with the upper hand on the resources. Their cries of “more more more” are forcing these companies to only make short term, quarterly or even monthly decisions, hampering to a detrimental effect the building of a long-term vision.

As we all know, where there is no vision, the people perish.

Eric Tapley 25 Jul 06

I think this is a great post, Jason, but I’d argue that part of writing great software is listening to the market, and this means keeping tabs on what your competitors are doing. You shouldn’t blindly add features just because your competitors are doing so, but if you see a great idea implemented by a competitor (which probably came from their customers’ feedback), and it fits with your product philosophy, you should add that. Or at least consider doing so and make a conscious decision to add it or not.

This iterative strategy fits with an earlier SvN post today about writing and rewriting. The greater message is to iteratively improve your work. The ideas for this will come from a variety of places (customers, competitors, unrelated products, out of the blue while taking a walk, etc.).

As long as you’re working on real improvements you’ll be making progress.

Mark Gallagher 25 Jul 06

One exception to this theory might be Microsoft.

For many years they watched their competitors very closely (apple, netscape, lotus) and quickly duplicated the features of most of their competitors products (windows interface, browser, spreadsheet) and did this very successfully through aggressive marketing that leveraged their dominant market position.

This was a winning strategy for a lot of years.

Of course, in recent years, this strategy has not worked as well with their current competition - google and a lot of small web-based companies.

Good discussion. Thanks.

Jamie Stephens 25 Jul 06

This is a great post. I think that it is a bad mistake to implement new features based solely on your competition having them. If your product is lacking a feature then your current customers will tell you. If they are not telling you that they need it, then they probably don’t. The only justification for adding the new feature at that point is if you want to reach out to a new type of customer - the kind of customer looking for that feature.

This follows well from the previous post comparing calendar UIs from Backpack and 30boxes. In some ways the two calendars are competing products, but their different features attract different customers. If the two products mutually adopted the other’s feature set, they would probably both alienate their current customers.

J 25 Jul 06

but I�d argue that part of writing great software is listening to the market, and this means keeping tabs on what your competitors are doing.

Jason covered that by saying “Yes, you have to pay attention to what�s going on out there.” I don’t think he’s suggesting not paying attention at all, I think he’s saying that following the competition is overrated in many ways. What’s important is knowing what you have to offer and offering it — not just offering what the competition is offering.

Eric Tapley 25 Jul 06

Good clarification, J.

I read that line, too, but thought it wasn’t clear enough in this context. However, as I’m not the author of the post I’m not sure if Jason meant that to include keeping an eye on what others in your field are doing or not.

Jack Shedd 26 Jul 06

What I’ve always found odd is how well this idea works. We’ve never focused too much on what other folks are doing business wise. We take notes of design trends, features folks seem to like, and keep a general tab on what “the industry” is doing. But at the end of the day, it’s more about the customers we serve, and how what we see/discover/think up ourselves can help them.

By focusing directly on our business, and no one elses, we’ve managed to find a niche (nearly accidentally) that keeps the doors open and that grows every year, no matter how slowly.

If we’d tried to keep up with every other design firm out there, chances are we’d be one more notch on the failed businesses head board.

David 27 Jul 06


It was a pleasure to meet you at the event and do a write up about it so the discussion could be shared with the world.

As someone presently looking to become a sales and marketing evangelist at a disruptive startup, I appreciate your viewpoints that challenge conventional wisdom.

See you around town (unless I move away…).

John 28 Jul 06

I like it. Although, part of me thinks this a great way to lull yourself into going home early instead of pushing your software…not that that’s bad. Pleasant work, makes pleasant product.