4 Unexpected Ways You Can Benefit From Your Competitors

In the game of business, there can be winners without losers.

In competitive sports, your goal, by definition, is to beat your opponents. No matter the game, you’re simultaneously keeping an eye on the prize and an eye on your competition. The game of entrepreneurship is no exception. As a product manager, I learned how and when to focus on our competitors. When we did it right, it helped my team answer questions, make decisions, and iterate effectively.

Two years ago, I managed the launch of Livefyre Sidenotes, an in-line commenting application for enterprise publications. With only four months to design the product from end-to-end, it was important for us to stay focused on our path.

Here are four ways we used competing products to propel ourselves ahead:

1. Identify opportunities for innovation

Early on, we identified Medium’s “Highlights” feature as our closest competing product. We learned how it worked in various contexts and on different devices. While inspired by the robustness of the feature, we also recognized its constraints: It could only be used on articles published on Medium’s platform. There was no way for independent online publications to use Highlights on their own sites. Using Medium as a jumping off point, we set out to create the first enterprise annotations product — one that any online publication could turn on so that its community could highlight and comment on articles in-line.

By studying a key competitor and its product use cases, we discovered an untapped opportunity in the enterprise publisher space and targeted our product at this market.

2. Get inside customers’ heads

Before we designed anything, my team became power users of every annotation solution out there. We spent hours underlining physical books, creating Kindle highlights, and writing in-line comments in Google Docs. We noted what we liked, didn’t like, and wished we could in each experience. For example, when we read used books, we found pre-existing underlines, highlights, and notes to be distracting. This inspired us to make an “opt-in” feature on Sidenotes: readers would have to voluntarily click a button to see previous highlights and comments.

Getting entrenched in our competitors’ products allowed my team to deeply understand the goals and emotions of our prospective users, then design an experience that would resolve shortcomings of existing solutions.

3. Figure out what problems your competitors have already solved

With only four months to design, build, and test Sidenotes, my team needed to be smart about the way we used our time. While it was important for us to address certain unsolved technical challenges, we didn’t necessarily need to invent a new way for readers to highlight and comment — Kindle and Medium had already successfully solved that. We chose to “steal smart” from our competitors by copying what they did well and made sense in the context of our application.

Because we recognized areas where our competitors were succeeding, we could confidently fast-track our own process.

4. Find ways customers can integrate your product with competitor products

Once we had a basic prototype of Sidenotes, we started to share it with potential customers. One, Slate, already had a feature that enabled readers to highlight andshare the selection on Twitter or Facebook. Instead of seeing this as a competing feature to beat, we instead worked with Slate to understand how Sidenotes could work with their existing one. Slate ended up keeping the feature for its public site and launching ours only on Slate Plus, its premium section.

Though it initially seemed like we had been beat to the game, we found ways to integrate our product with the competing one, thus creating a stronger solution for our customer that neither one product could have provided on its own.

Whether you’re building a new product or service from scratch or fine-tuning an existing one, leverage your competitors in healthy ways. They will accelerate your growth, and in some cases, you will simultaneously accelerate theirs. And what’s more fun than a game where everyone wins?


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