If you saw your competitor’s roadmap would it matter?

This is part of an ongoing startup advice series where I answer (anonymized!) questions from readers, like a written version of Smart Bear Live. To get your question answered, email me at asmartbear -at- shortmail -dot- com.

Clever Idea Hoarder writes:

I’d like to take everyone’s advice and talk to potential customers and investors about my ideas, but what if someone else steals my idea?

If a competitor got ahold of this — especially a well-funded one — I could die before I ever got started! Don’t VCs do that?

Almost all founders I encounter are leery about discussing their product plans. Now with the Social Network movie promulgating this fear, I expect it will worsen.

It’s silly, for two reasons.

1. Either you have a defensible competitive advantage, or you don’t.

The moment you soft-launch your competitors (and soon-to-be-competitors) will see what you’re doing. Other people can copy almost anything, and they have every advantage — more money, more manpower, more experience in the market, and existing customers to commiserate with. Those companies still incubating their offering can pivot before they launch, incorporating your best ideas and adding their own, releasing just months after you do.

“But no,” you declare, and then launch into all these reasons why your competitors can’t just copy you. I hear all the time that “existing competitors already have these business models / investors / existing customers that prevents them from pivoting or allowing innovation like I’ve done, so it would be either impossible or take them years to catch up, and by then we’re on to the next amazing thing.”

Yeah, I know. That’s the same reason it doesn’t matter whether they find out now or three months from now!

A few months fore or aft doesn’t make the difference. If it does, you’re sunk anyway. No one’s that good at timing the market.

2. The roadmap is not as useful as you think.

Let’s turn the tables: What if, right now, you were privy to every one-year road map from all your competitors? What would you do?

Would you try to copy their features and release before they got there? Would that really put you “ahead,” even if you released those features three months earlier? Is the reason they win customers only because they have a certain feature first? Do you think most of their customers and potential customers are keeping track of feature-release timelines?

Or would you do the opposite: Go in a different direction to minimize overlap? Would that really create a “niche,” even though you’re running away from something instead of towards something? Is “Not them” a valid positioning statement? How do you know there are customers waiting for you in this negative space?

What if you discovered that a competitor is changing niches? Is it a good idea to fill the new void and pick up their disappointed customers or do you think that they’re vacating the niche because it’s an unprofitable one?

These questions are impossible to answer with confidence. The answers come through exploration and gut feel, which you do with or without knowing your competitor’s roadmap.

That’s all just to say: Knowing what your competitors are up to is less valuable than it sounds. It makes for complex feature-comparison matrices but it’s not a strategy.

Now therefore.

So no, don’t publish your secrets without reason, don’t give your competitors information for free.

But stop being an idea-miser with people who might be helpful. When you’re pitching customers and mentors and investors and potential hires and co-founders, just talk. Forget the NDAs, just talk about everything except the one or two things that really are secret sauce.

Don’t let your mostly-irrational fears stop you from having high-value, meaningful interactions with people who are, in fact, not out to get you.

 

Add your advice to the discussion section!

  • Anonymous

    I definitely feel being too secretive has hindered my abilities to progress and grow a bit.

    • http://plexusengine.com/ Marshall Kirkpatrick

      It’s pretty awesome that you posted that comment anonymously.

  • http://twitter.com/webfeedback Kupima User Testing

    Would it matter? Great question. Personally, as many have said, an idea is worthless without great execution and a road-map invariably doesn’t elaborate on how something will be executed, so I’d say that it wouldn’t matter. My competitors’ business is their own, and mine is mine. Sure, they are broadly aiming in the same direction but following different roads as befits our different ideas, experience, culture, biases, you name it…

  • Matthew A. Myers

    It can matter based on where you are / what stage on the roadmap you’re at. That’s apart of the defensible competitive advantage.

    I’ve recently become extremely comfortable with my own roadmap, where beforehand I was even too afraid / worried about talking to people I needed to talk to for networking purposes. I have a lot of plans though, a very large ecosystem I am building with lots of smaller ecosystems — and then a longer term larger ecosystem I have my sights on.

    I now realize no one can really compete with what I’m doing. Mind you, a large part of that is that I’ve spent years acquiring the brand names / domains, and many more years allowing my ideas to evolve and figure out how to differentiate enough – to figure out what’s missing, and how things can best work.

    I feel confident now, at least in a casual environment, explaining everything in detail.. usually an overload of information, but it makes sense and I’m capable of explaining it – and like all relationships, romantic or not, confidence is a signal of deeper understanding – and allows excitement and passion to show through.

  • http://www.bidsketch.com Ruben

    I like the idea of having a defensible competitive advantage but how important is that really for a small business that isn’t trying to become the next huge startup?

    What if you have a quality product, can get a lot of sustainable traffic, and know how to convert that traffic?

    Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that competing on features is a losing battle. I saw this as soon as I started getting competitors with more resources and money (didn’t have any in my space when I launched) copy my features and parts of my marketing strategy. I just don’t know that a lack of a defensible competitive advantage is going to sink a startup if they’re doing the basics right (quality product, traffic, paid conversions). From what I’ve seen, it’s the lack of these basics that kills many startups.

    P.S. I do think there’s long term value in having the type of advantage you mention — in fact I’m always working on further developing and emphasizing mine :)

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      The smaller the system, of course the more freedom you have to do anything.

      In the extreme, there’s are lots of small businesses with horrible product and service in a large market, who get enough business to sustain themselves just because they’re there.

      Of course that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal, but it points out that at small scale you can do many things and be fine, yes.

      I’m NOT saying that you need a defensible advantage!

      I’m saying that EITHER you do have one, in which case secrecy isn’t important, or you don’t have one and don’t need one, in which case again secrecy isn’t important.  :-)

      • Dmosinee

         I think you might have just answered one of your questions from the original article, ‘If you saw your competitors roadmap would it matter?’  In the case of the small business with a horrible product that is doing well just by showing up, I would absolutely love to know that inside info, and they would be fools to tell anyone about it.  If they did, a bunch of people would show up and actually make a good product and steal every user from them. 

        I think the exception to the secrecy rule, is that if you got really lucky to end up in a successful position, then you should definitely keep it a secret.  I’m sure the guys who made over a million on the first fart sound app for iOS weren’t running around encouraging others to try and compete with them, they were doing anything they could to ride that fart sound wave as long as they could.

  • ronclabo

    Great post.  I totally agree. There is so much to be learned from discussions with others about the thinking behind the startup and the vision for the business.  Feeling like everything needs to be kept in secrete robs founders of these discussions and the insights they bring.

    I think one of the reasons that entrepreneurs fall into the trap of idea protectionism is that they over value ideas and undervalue the drive, tenacity and perseverance necessary to turn the idea into reality.

  • David Carruthers

    I really liked the part in the ‘Lean Startup’ book that asked students afraid of sharing their idea to try and get hold of the person responsible in their main competitor and get them to take the idea. Actually *try* and get them to be interested in it in the first place, let alone pay attention, let alone actually change their existing plans to do something different along the lines of their new product. It’s quite freeing realising how little anyone else cares about your idea to begin with.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      I like the idea of having to turn someone. Predisposed to not listen. 

      However companies may be entrenched for good reason, and in fact your new idea might not be a good one for them, in the part of the market they’re addressing, with their roadmap, their resources, etc. so it’s also easy to get a false negative. 

      I’m more interested in what a potential customer thinks about the whole thing than a competitor who is already ensconced in a certain pattern of thought.

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  • http://www.retracehealth.com/ Kendra Allen

    I’m pretty new in the entrepreneurial world, so it was quite surprising when my CEO had extensive conversations with a competitor at a recent conference.  I quickly realized what you articulated here, that there isn’t a serious danger of them trying to make off with our plans.  In fact, through our conversations, we realized that our products were aimed at different client groups and we may even have an opportunity to collaborate.  At least for a couple of days, we had a chance to swap stories about the journey so far.  Thanks for this article!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      It’s surprising yes, but that story is common.  Same thing happened to me at Smart Bear — one competitor ended up ditching their tool and reselling ours.  Even now at WP Engine, we have a great relationship with ZippyKid — a direct competitor — sharing credit for things online and generally playing nicely with each other instead of pissing on each other, particularly in public, which ends up being a service to all potential customers as well, who would rather hear about our individual strengths instead of exaggerated attacks like political candidates.

    • http://blog.uservoice.com Evan Hamilton

      That’s an amazing story, Kendra. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.analyticsnation.com/ Analytics Nation

    So true – the “plan” is sort of valuable, but not nearly as valuable as people that can execute!

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  • Tmclaughlin

    It has been my personal experience that being overly secretive about a new business idea has the downside of missing out on critical informed advice that might help one to either improve the idea or abandon a poorly conceived idea (although thought of fondly by the inventor) prior to investing heavily in both time and money.

  • http://www.SocialMediaJobsCourse.com/ Social Media Jobs

    Better to focus on what you can do to solve the problem of your consumer, than to worry about what your competitor is doing.   Unless you simply look at their direction (road map) in terms of what they are missing.  But it always has to come back to what you can do for your client.

  • http://blog.uservoice.com Evan Hamilton

    Fantastic post, and so very very true. At UserVoice build customer feedback forums and it’s astounding how many companies don’t want to respond to customer requests, because they think their competitors are spying on the forum. SO WHAT?! If you’re making a great experience for your customers, a single feature doesn’t matter.

  • http://www.xiliumonline.com/ Xilium Assistant

    Being secretive may work to your advantage, but overdoing it can be bad coz you might miss helpful thoughts from people around you. Who knows you can learn big time from your competitors.

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  • http://blog.cliqflip.com/ Andrew Gale

    It could definitely help, if you know your competitor is stronger than you and going after the exact same market, with the same message it would be nice to know so you could pivot maybe target smaller niche markets and change the message and grow that way to eventually get strong enough to take them head on. Either way in my opinion, it would help a lot!

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