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“Every minute I spent thinking about competitors was a minute wasted” (twitter.com)
442 points by aboutruby on Mar 23, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 157 comments

Funny - I have an email from pg from 2011 where YC didn't fund OpenRent [1] due to our competitors being too dominant.

As head strong (and certainly naiive) young founders at the time, we continued with our vision anyway. Thankfully we have gone on to become by far the largest rental agency in the uk, and have driven real change (see tenant fees ban) in the industry.

I mention this as when it comes to investment decisions, competitors / incumbents of course do matter. But as per what I think pg means here, when running your own business any time spent thinking about the next startup to raise a bucket load of cash is of course wasted. That has certainly been the case in our industry where this seems to happen on a monthly basis.

[1] - https://www.openrent.co.uk

I used OpenRent to find my last flat in London. It was great!

Very happy to hear it!

That's a surprisingly strong data point in favour of pg's tweet. Not only was time wasted, it sounds like money was lost too.

Congratulations on sticking it through!

We're profitable, and still growing...

Happy to see here brits as well

Full text is:

> At both Viaweb and YC, every minute I spent thinking about competitors was, in retrospect, a minute wasted.

Follow-up tweet:

> It may be useful for some companies to think about competitors. That's why I didn't phrase it as a general rule. In particular it may be useful for more established companies to. If a startup has to, though, they're probably doomed.

Also a quote from Jeff Bezos:

> “If you want to get to the truth about what makes us different, it’s this: We are genuinely customer-centric, we are genuinely long-term oriented, and we genuinely like to invent. Most companies are not those things. They are focused on the competitor, rather than the customer. They want to work on things that will pay dividends in two or three years, and if they don’t work in two or three years, they will move on to something else. And they prefer to be close followers rather than inventors, because it’s safer. So if you want to capture the truth about Amazon, that is why we are different. Very few companies have all of those three elements.”

As a side note, I added […] in the title to show this isn't the complete text but it got scrubbed then removed.

>> It may be useful for some companies to think about competitors. That's why I didn't phrase it as a general rule. In particular it may be useful for more established companies to. If a startup has to, though, they're probably doomed.

Back around the mid- or early '90s there was a management theory trend of working to identify institutional best practices and of formally benchmarking https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benchmarking institutions against peers (often competitors). I don't recall much detail about it at all, because I was only a teenager at the time and I only heard about it from the summaries you'd see in magazines like the Economist. But what I do seem to recall is that (like many another management-theory trend) it went through a phase of red-hot excitement to widespread skepticism and moderate disillusionment, and partly for the obvious reasons: benchmarking competitors usually can't on its own deliver much insight into how to outperform the current leader in any given area, and doesn't usually offer much of an insight into future opportunities or challenges. So (it seems) even for established companies there are limits to how competitor-focussed it's usually advisable to be.

(AFAICT—and again, I'm just someone who read about this stuff in magazines as a child—this kind of management-theory/theory-of-the-firm study and experimentation really was much more prominent in the public eye twenty-five or more years ago, and has faded from popular awareness since; maybe because the work itself is less common, and less influential on institutions, nowadays too. I think that's a pity, because it seems relevant to some supposedly-new things you see generating excitement nowadays, especially in the vicinity of the tech industry. For example the whole Valve structureless-or-notionally-structureless-organisation effort is probably pretty well prefigured in the work of a generation of management consultants who looked at and tried out all kinds of institutional structures or absences of structure beside the traditional corporate model, generally in pursuit of much the same ends—more innovation, more amenability to change, better decision-making—and with similar mixed-to-disappointing results.

That's all for now kids. Next week, the X-Files. ;) )

Do you think Jeff’s statement holds true today? I’m under the impression Amazon is less customer centric but maybe I am biased.

It's taken pretty seriously internally. All new hires at most offices receive day-1 "Customer Obsession" training. I know this because I got certified as a trainer for that class just this week.

There are some cases where I think we've failed at it, speaking for myself and not the company of course, but the concept is still the driving force behind a lot of what goes on. "Start with the customer". Amazon Go is a pretty big recent example where the company is really proud internally of the customer obsession that went into it.

Bias note: I've been an Amazon dude a long time now.

Something I read recently on some other HN comment was that if you work in AWS you are customer-obsessed for AWS customers, when you work in 3rd party seller tools you're customer-obsessed for 3rd party sellers, when you work in ads you're customer-obsessed with the advertisers as your customers etc.

It makes a lot of sense for any company to operate this way (most I've seen already do) and explains how they can be genuinely customer-obsessed while still seeming like at times they don't have the average consumer's best interest at heart.

From three recent years working there, absolutely. They bend over backwards for their customers, always. The problem, and where most of the bad reputation comes from, is from people who aren't their customers -- warehouse employees, if you're trying to get things shipped to retail customers, or the actual employees, if you're trying to do anything. And, probably, their over-obsession with customers is why they've been so slow and incompetent about dealing with sellers cheating their system -- because the default was letting them get away with everything.

How does 'giving your customers fake goods' not hurt customer service? It seems like a customer first approach should be tougher on this.

It does, and I think the problem is more that Amazon's internal processes and tribal knowledge are a bit clueless when it comes to fraud. Their perspective, historically, has been to allow as many products as possible on the site, because one of the way they get and retain customers is by 'having everything'. Their metrics don't incentivize large purges. I think it's a bit of an arms race between fraudulent sellers and the retail org's processes and engineering, and unfortunately the latter iterates much slower so they can't keep up.

Also, the warehouse processes at least are heavily designed around catching mistakes like mislabeling, but less so intentional fraud like fakes (or - they were a few years ago, imo). And they tend to treat fraud like a big data problem ('what can we do to lower this statistic') instead of case-by-case: 'we need to get rid of every fraudulent seller'. Which, like, if you try really hard to move a needle from, say, 80% to 95%, that ultimately means you are vocally okay with 5%, which is stupid.

FBA sellers are the customers of that section. The buyers on Amazon are not relevant.

> Customer Obsession

> Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Listed first on both https://www.amazondelivers.jobs/about/culture/ and https://aws.amazon.com/careers/culture/

I think they are less customer centric, based on my own experiences as a customer over the years. Their customer service is still pretty decent though. And I think Bezos's statement on their willingness to make long term investments still holds.

I should stipulate that I separate these issues in my head from things like dismal working conditions. There's nothing that precludes Amazon from being excellent in some areas of corporate management and horrible in other ways. I think their increase to a minimum $15/hour wage was a very small step in the right direction, but they have a ways to go. Basically I consider their warehouse operations as a case-in-point for why unions still have a use in modern times. The ability to have a bathroom break that doesn't involve threading your member into an bottle in an out of the way place on the warehouse floor would seem to be one of the first "asks" of such a union. I also see the need to have medical services on site 24/7 as less of a feature, and more of a bandaid over the bug that is constant worker injury. In speaks to a culture of hurt that perpetually keeps the "time since last injury" clock hovering in the half-hour range.

I can explain how stuff like co-mingling may be customer centric - it's a necessary trade-off to offer large selection, low price and fast shipping. Maybe.

But Ads ? They only harm customers.

So yes, they're less customer centric.

Amazon is big enough to have internal competition.

And The Customer doesn't have to mean the person who buys stuff from an Amazon listing.

Totally agree with PG on this.

This isn’t the first time he says this obviously and has put a lot of thought into this. The quote I really like from him on this topic is:

“A startup worrying about competitors is like a fat guy smoking a cigarette as he worries about contracting West Nile Virus.”

I like to remind my two friends helping me build our side project right now of this reality all the time. There are so many things that could kill us at this stage, a competitor is the least likely.

This is the key quote, because it implies that PG thinks that a startup is like a fat guy who smokes. In other words, you're highly likely to go bust, and competition is lower on the list of reasons you could go bust than many others (shit product, no market, wrong market, founder infighting, etc). It's because he focuses solely on high-risk-high-reward companies.

His insight might not be as useful if you're not running a high-risk enterprise. At the other extreme of the risk spectrum, if you're opening a new gas station, it may be useful to check where the current gas stations are.

If competition can put a serious dent in your business then either you're so big that you can't reasonably be called a startup anymore (eg Instagram vs Snapchat, Uber vs Lyft eg), or your market is too small to be considered a "high risk, high reward" company (and thus you're not a startup by PG's definition).

This makes me think of the relationship between gestation time and maximum age of the organism and the number of offspring. Maybe the next VC craze will be handing groups of 20 year olds 10k$ and some advice.

Or a government could give all of its citizens a couple thousand a year...


Apply with anything Apply with any type of project you need help with. It could be a company, physics research, journalism, or art. All you need to do is convince other applicants that your project is worth doing.

Play the Tournament Every week other participants will give you feedback and points. The more interesting your work, the higher your score will be. Each month, the top-ranked applicants become new Pioneers.

Become a Pioneer Pioneers receive a $1,000 investment with the possibility for a $100,000 follow-on, a round-trip ticket to San Francisco and access to a private online forum with other Pioneers. See the terms of the Pioneer offer.

> groups of 20 year olds 10k$ and some advice.

not that bad of an idea imho.

a VC fund with 100mil can fund 10,000 groups of kids this way. Gives kids new opportunities socially (reduces teen delinquency), and the VC could hope to recoup if/when one of them becomes unicorn status.

That's a horrible idea.

Whoever is in charge of this fund is responsible for dolling out 100mm of other people's money.

How in the world does this group of investors responsibly filter and vet 10,000 suitable companies in a time effective manner? How do you effectively keep track of the founders and the money?

Are checks being written to 20 year olds without much scrutiny in the hope that a unicorn shows up without any real statistical basis for expecting such an event? I'd steer clear of that fund.

Eh, call it a non-profit or charity. Give the kids who show promise in tech a chance to just start running instead of taking the typical college route. I doubt it'd be on the scale of 10k companies, but a thousand a year? That could be doable. Have the contracts be very generous towards the "students", and try to make up the difference with donations and alumni contributions. It'd essentially become a new form of secondary education, a trade school for tech in a sense.

> How in the world does this group of investors responsibly filter and vet 10,000 suitable companies in a time effective manner? How do you effectively keep track of the founders and the money?

Sounds like whoever solves this will go on to be a very successful VC. Perhaps an application for AI, or a crowd-sourcing model?

This is basically Y Combinator and 500 Startups.

"A startup worrying about competitors is like a fat guy smoking a cigarette as he worries about contracting West Nile Virus.”

That's actually really, really good. It's super hard to adequately express ideas of "just do this (positive, constructive) thing and don't worry so much about (all the wildly unlikely things people routinely worry about instead)." But that remark does a surprisingly good job of capturing some important elements of the concept.

Link to mentioned quote: https://twitter.com/paulg/status/398642023529345024?lang=en (7 Nov 2013)

Nice, good find.


What's wrong when a grown man says something like that? Are phthalates to blame?

It is like worrying about the fate of mankind when the Sun goes red giant when we have a hundred other more immediate concerns that could wipe out humanity.

>“A startup worrying about competitors is like a fat guy smoking a cigarette as he worries about contracting West Nile Virus.”

It is really important for the fat guy to determine if he is near Nile River, or an area infected with the WN virus and work out the chances of contracting the virus.

Sure a startup is "flimsy" in many ways, but doing good and adequate market research, determining what you have to offer that is better than current competition (when it exists) and considering if it's worth it is definitely something to thing about.

Worrying isn't useful, researching and planning is. If you have competition, study it and include it in your considerations and plans.

> It is really important for the fat guy to determine if he is near Nile River, or an area infected with the WN virus and work out the chances of contracting the virus.

The fat guy should certainly do that, but first of all he should quit smoking and eating KFC. Those are more existential threats.

There is a grain of truth to the hyperbole. Too much focus on what competitors are doing takes away time and effort from the inevitable laundry list of things your own company ought to be doing, regardless.

You have no idea how relevant this is to me at exactly this moment! About an hour ago, I found out that a competitor (a larger incumbent player) released a feature today that I had built and released 6 months ago!

I've been panicking the last couple of hours, but now it's back to the grind. I've got a lot more feature ideas in mind, and this is just that extra push to do the things I've been putting off.

If both you and a competitor could build a feature, then it was a feature that was going to be built anyway. The art is to position and brand yourself in a way that allows you to build unique features that wouldn't be useful to a competitor because you are attacking different market segments.

If you can't position, then you become a commodity and you're competing purely on price.

This is true, and a useful book on positioning is: https://www.amazon.com/Positioning-Battle-Your-Al-Ries/dp/00...

Furthermore, one way to avoid ending up in a feature for feature fight to the death with a bigger player is to think instead in terms of “job to be done”: https://hbr.org/2016/09/know-your-customers-jobs-to-be-done

By planning what you work on by focusing on what the customer is trying to achieve you’ll do yourself a favour when it comes to marketing as you’ll be able to speak in terms they understand.

Lastly, as you’ll see in the positioning book above, it’s not wise to completely avoid competitor analysis despite how unpleasant and draining it can sometimes be. A potential customer needs to understand why they would choose you over the incumbent. You need to know that answer before they can.

The "job to be done" is essentially just another term for the customer's need, right? To me, the main utility of that phrase is that it emphasizes the mindset of the customer much more than looking for a need.

Yes that’s my understanding but looking at it as a job to be done intuitively moves towards how they currently do the job. This can often reveal other areas where you can help.

Anyone can build a feature you can. Some market segments have existing players and people shouldn't be afraid to play competitively. You don't live in a bubble and you can innovate all day but your customers are still the same people with the same needs. Either you are solving them, in which case someone else will too. Or you are trying to sell them your toy project and convince them they have a problem that it solves. SV has burned through billions on projects that were hyper niche or had no market at all.

You can make a moat around your product, but that is different. You still have a core value proposition that solves their real world problem and there will be other people solving it too.

Most companies build moats through contractual lock in, trust and size, or simply buying their competitors. I have yet to see a feature only moat.

Supreme is the company I like to bring up as one that survives on almost 100% pure positioning. The "feature" Supreme released a few years ago was a brick with the Supreme logo on it which sold out instantly and started going on eBay for $1000.

This is a feature that no other company could have built. Every single one of Supreme's competitors could have known that Supreme would be releasing the brick and the information would be utterly useless to them because only Supreme could have released the Supreme brick.

On the one end you have Supreme and the other you have pure commodities and It's up to you to figure out where you'd like to be along that spectrum.

> I have yet to see a feature only moat.

Features that induce a significant network effect can potentially lead to a moat. No contracts necessary.

(Maybe this is what you meant when you mentioned "size" as a moat-building mechanism.)

Yep, that was the intent behind mentioning size. Google could be said to have a network effect based moat around Google Docs for example.

I think the tech world's use of the word "commodity" is interesting. "becoming a commodity" really means "fail to establish a monopoly".

That's what commodity means in economics, up to the level of precision implied by your statement.


I think most people understand commodity as things like: iron ore, sugar, rice, chemicals, raw materials.

For example, take a Toyota Prius. Most people would not think of that as a commodity. It also is not a monopoly. If Toyota Prius where a software tech startup, they would be bemoaning the fact that they have become a "commodity" (read: it's become a competitive market where consumers have choice between differentiated goods).

You shipped 6 months ahead, therefore your game is better than the larger incumbent - so keep playing the way you were. All incumbents eventually get beaten - why not by you?

Over a long enough timeframe, the better player always wins.


I’ve just spent a few days with a client who is in a bit of a fluster, as they feel their business (ten years, eight people, very healthy revenue & profit with huge blue-chip clients) is under threat from a new VC backed competitor.

I said to think of it differently - that the new competitor is so inefficient and unsure about what they are doing that they need a $100M safety blanket. Some will be dazzled by their meteoritic trail - and will get their fingers burned when they touch it.

Also, that with a small team and minimal funding you have secured robust relationships with the core clients they need to make their business a success, and have locked them out. With a small team and minimal funding, you are the guys being invited to speak at conferences - and they are having to sponsor them to get air-time.

Finally, almost verbatim, as I give this speech to both myself and others fairly frequently: “Keep your eyes in the boat, row your own race - and make them anticipate and fear your moves. The moment you worry about what is happening in their boat and how you should respond, you are rowing their race, and you have lost.”

The emergence of a new VC-backed competitor also validates your client's business.

Sure, that’s true - although the client didn’t need telling that, as they already know they’re onto a good thing - their flagship clients and steering group are industry leaders.

Either way, they went away bubbly and excited about the prospect of grinding their cocksure new competitor into sparkly dust!

I’ve seena company creating “Google Photos” two months before Google. Sometimes a competitor is really a competitor.

Because they hold the keys to the door ( Android), but Apple holds the others.

Sometimes, a competitor isn't playing the same game.

sometimes it can be flattering and frustrating at the same time. we build a feature. six months later I get a ping from a colleague our competitor the biggest in the space an established name copyed it 1:1 mind you they had this feature before but worked and looked completely different. first I was proud that they copyed us and them I was angry.

I'm in the process of ideation/brainstorming/prototyping for my very first product. I can't decide between educating myself on what my competitors are doing, or focusing on what makes my own product special.

Daniel I understand you're tenacious, but the real thing to focus on is getting the product to the point where anyone can use it to solve any problem well. Almost always this is easiest if the person that you're solving the problem for is yourself.

Take the Overcast podcast app, for example. I was one of the first users of it. The way its evolved over the years is directly because the founder uses it routinely. He didn't start by including the less obvious features right off the bat, he started by building the obvious ones. Only after he was happy with it did he start to pull in other features from other apps.

Some products you just can't do this with. I get it. I truly do, but try your best to find some sub-problem and ship it. Even if it's only to yourself.

I happened to befriend a number of successful startup founders ten years ago, before they'd made it. All the people I've seen sell companies had grit, myself included, but only the ones that shipped fast sold them for more than $Xm, myself not included.


(If you need more advice, better tailored to your product feel free to email me, but the most important advice will always be to ship.)

I considered a podcast app with a niche feature. But market research indicated it wasn't worth my time and I wasn't passionate enough to do it anyway. Life is balance.

You cannot make your own product special without knowing what your competitors are doing.

You have to study the entire market (which means competitors), and then see how you fit in there, and what is special.

Most products aren't that special relative to their competitors. The number of people actually coming to market with a better mousetrap is vanishingly small compared to those who just market essentially the same product or service differently or try to cut costs.

I was over the moon when my main competitor started copying my features, it meant they were always going to be one step behind me. Not only that but they would also make the same mistakes I did.

I call bullshit. If he thought about competitors, it obviously affected his actions. So how can he know, he would be where he is today, if he hadn't thought about competitors? This is just another Silicon Valley bullshit statement...

Yep and there are always versions of what I will call the 'deathbed' story. It usually is spoken by a person who has made it spending time on their deathbed saying they didn't have to work as hard as they did.

Not only that but what is exactly the definition of 'worry'? It means different things to different people and maybe what he did was obsessive compared to what someone else did or would do in the same exact situation.

Look I am obsessive with computer backups as much as I can. Luckily I haven't really needed them. Wouldn't it be really stupid for me to say years from now 'boy I wish I hadn't spent so much time worrying about backing up my systems?'. (Of course not and that's obvious).

Just read his tweet yesterday where he mentions about giving too much thought to competitors being unhelpful.

I guess his thinking has evolved over time -- https://twitter.com/paulg/status/1109220781035307009

Man but it's so hard to stop thinking. People said to build an MVP. I did. Comparing it with competitors, it looks empty. It gets the job done but what about other 107 integrations with third-party APIs my competitors provide? Even if I show it to my potential customers, it feels like cheating. I feel like if they know about my competitors they're bound to leave my software for sure. This sucks, even more, when you are a solo developer. If I start chasing every feature competitors have it's gonna take me a decade to build. Man but I've put so much work already I don't want to give up too. It's a tiring mental dilemma.

The key is to build a Minimal Viable Product. If your product is just a crappier version of someone else's product, then it's not viable. Focus solving a specific hair on fire problem that some subset of your user base has that they're willing to adopt your product, even if every other aspect of it is inferior. This gives you the oxygen to play catch up on other aspects.

Nobody needs those 107 integrations. Everyone just needs two or three. Having 107 makes it more likely that you happen to have the 2 or 3 integrations that one specific customer needs.

As a solo dev, you can't be all things to everyone. You need to focus.

And if you focus on a subset of your customers, you may be able to do the two or three things your customers need better than the big guy who can do 107 things. And that's how you sell your product.

> I feel like if they know about my competitors they're bound to leave my software for sure

Who gives you the right to decide what a customer should want? If they are with you and they are happy with your solution and they stay with you, it's not in your right to think that they should be buying it from someone else.

This is why we don't have one car model for each car category, one kind of food for each meal. It may seem logical that everybody should just buy the product with the most bang for their bucks but people usually need the right product.

Sporks are more feature rich than spoons and forks but most people would prefer to use spoons for the soup and forks for the salad even when they are fully aware that sporks exist.

if everyone is leaving you when they learn about your competitor it may mean that you don't have a viable product and you should make changes.

I've build Tagly/Handlr as a knowledge base for a company ( MVP as they say - http://handlr.sapico.me ), they went for SharePoint. After 2 years it's back on the table. And I've been dogfooding it ever since.

The only thing is performance. But for it's porpose, it's perfect.

A lot of things have more features, but I've build it as a managable HN with hierarchical tags. Which is kinda unique.

I super interested in Knowledgbases and "hierarchical tags" are close to a few concepts of mine, too.

I think handlr could use a tagline and an elevator pitch somewhere. From the looks I thought it might be a more general HN clone and even after a few clicks it doesn't really reveal to me what it actually does.

Because now it's only used as a feed reader.

Tags can contain actions and fields ( eg. Email). Which makes it extensible.

But it's not setup that way, I want stories in it and improved performance before I would ever pitch it

All you need is a different angle. Read Blue Ocean Strategy.

Honest question: what did you get out of the Blue Ocean Strategy book?

I tried to read a sample on the Kindle app, but the text was simply ... impenetrable. The main idea, whatever it was, was couched in layers and layers of jargon.

When I contrast their jargon-laced writing style (e.g value innovation) with the lucid writing style of Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell, I wonder how they managed to sell 4.5 million copies.

Oh, I had no problem reading it. The concept is simple. Take some similar existing products/services and create a cart of their attributes. Determine if you can find an easy win by adjusting some of the attributes to get ahead of the market and possibly add new attributes.

That's coming from a guy whose startup Viaweb was essentially made completely irrelevant by a competitor (Amazon) with a better strategy. Does anyone really buy things on Yahoo stores anymore?

If you want to grow fast and sell out, then you probably don't need to worry about competitors, but if you want to stay in business for a long time, you do need to worry about having sustainable competitive advantages.

It's one of the pieces of advice you get, have a plan how to exit. He exited way before then, what Yahoo did is down to them.

Or, in other news: “millionaire cherry picks anecdotes from his past to make him look like a visionary”.

Sounds more like survivorship bias than actual good advice.

It only makes sense if you are selling a unique product. Even then though in most online niches are you going to have similar products that people are considering. For example this Drip comparisons page is a waste of time to create according to the above advice: https://www.drip.com/comparisons

That’s just content marketing, nothing to do with thinking about competition, although that’s what you’ll be doing if you write that.

I'd like instructions on how to recognize emails from each of those spamming companies and block them.

What about it makes it sound more like survivorship bias?

Because people whose startups tanked due to them not keeping an eye on competitors are likely under-represented in the category of "things Hacker News pays attention to".

In the US Civil War, general Sherman was brilliant at logistics and military science and had one of the most prescient views of the wars length and brutality at its outset. And yet, US Grant was made the overall field commander by Lincoln. Of Grant, Sherman argued he himself was better at generaling than Grant in almost every way except this:

Grant doesn't give a damn what the enemy does out of his sight, but it scares me like hell.

Can't say I understand any of this. So Sherman thought that Grant's lack of preocupation for enemy' action out of sight was a virtue? Why?

He didn’t worry about things he couldn’t control.

This advice is presented for startups, but it’s pretty relevant for life in general too. E.g. dating, career success, physical fitness, achievement. Focus on delivering your unique value to the world, not on beating the other guy.

'One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. ' T.S. Eliot in The Sacred Wood.

I'd go even further and say there is no novel thinking, only unique recombination, randomness and reaction.

If you think about how neurons work, they only make new connections, they don't spontaneously create something out of nothing.

Ain't nothin' wrong with a healthy dose of competitive research. At the very least you need to know where you stand. Just be aware that your competitors are about as clueless about things as you are, and they too don't know wtf they're doing. But do by all means collect nuggets of wisdom as long as you aren't spending too much time doing it.

Also, if you take these pearls of wisdom fro village elders seriously, remember, there's a selection bias at play.

And then at every vc/incubator they ask you, why are you better than your competitors?


Worrying about your competitors redesigning their shopping cart or reducing their price by 99 cents per month might well be wasted time, unless you happen to find their design particularly admirable or compete in a very price sensitive industry. But not even considering what people might use instead of your service (even if this "competitor" is actually "do it in Excel") and whether there are things you can learn from that would be a bigger mistake.

Met my co-founder arbitrarily and had to end the relationship because of this very reason - he would spend the entire day looking at competition and freaking out about it. Was a bad sign!

I hate to be a dissenting voice here. And I agree that “worrying” is a problem, but you should absolutely be looking at your contemporaries.

My studio recently released a product that seems to be being praised for the fact we did not construct it in a vacuum and learned from the misgivings of our own product and other products in the same genre.

A lot of what you need to do in your startup is actually just obbvious. Spending time thinking about competitors or other things that are out of your control is a waste of time. When asked how the amazon business will be different 10 years from now, Bezos often says the same thing - that 10 years from now customers arent going to wake up one day and say i want amazon to deliver slower, i want less selection from amazon or i want higher prices. so just focusing on those three things and not worrying about what your competitors do or dont do would put you much farther ahead. youve just gotta figure out what those three or four things are for your business - the core stuff that customers really want and just keep focusing on making those things better.

Why is the creator of HN not on HN anymore? Or is he? Has he entirely moved to Twitter or is he still posting and commenting on HN?

Thanks. So he hasn’t posted at all for 5 years or commented at all for 3.5 years :-)

bs. it's like telling a PhD candidate no need doing reference research. being a good startup is not only about solving customers problem well, but solving in the best way and preferably first to solve.

What exactly were you thinking about when "thinking" about your competitors?

Usually it's copying features "they have Foo, I just need Foo or Foo++". Worse is: competitor A has feature X, competitor B has feature Y, competitor C has feature Z... all I have to do is build X, Y, and Z in one! Unfortunately a lot of product people think this way. I think it's generally a mistake.

It's hard to make successful products by duplicatiing your competitors old products. Consider that your competitors products likely have a lot of legacy limitations that a green field design doesn't. And usually have features that no one actually needs either.

Blatant example. The scope on my bench has a floppy drive. You know for saving traces. Yeah like anyone wants or needs that today.

I get what he means, but... it's probably easier to say that "in retrospect" when your ventures are as successful as his.

Jean Marie Dedecker, Belgian politician now, formerly Olympic judo coach, made his team combat internally.

They won a lot of prices, but that's because the global championships were "just a practice" for being the best internally. Not bothering others, not settling for a second place. Ever

Yeah, but what about thinking strategically, placing figures on a virtual chess board, anticipating moves, etc? Assuming their actions can affect you, or otherwise them wouldn't be competitors. If this is a wasted effort to someone, maybe they just aren't doing this right.

One of the best talks about this exact same topic is "The infinite players are the ones that frustrate their competitors." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5nAaxIkmFE

I liked his talks.

Cool dialogue between PG and Jeff Atwood (StackOverflow cofounder) on the tweet thread - From Jeff: “You can always borrow concepts and ideas from other startups, too. It's good to look, and understand the competitive landscape in detail, but not to obsess over.“

Andy Grove and bill gates probably have a different opinion. Everyone has a different opinion.

Side jab... hasn't posted on HN since 2015 but regular on Twitter? What gives?

HN and Twitter both have their dismissive assholes with their “You just invented ... buses.” (or taxes, or taxis, you get the idea)

But on Twitter you can block people and you can delete things easily. pg doesn’t write essays any more either, because now he has a hostile audience like with the Information, or when he said if you have a thick accent learn to speak English more clearly or when he said inequality is less important than growth and he got ragged for that. Writing in public is at best barely worth it for him with his greater profile.

... or he is jus more interested in raising his kids. I dunno, but that seems a sane choice in an insane world to me.

HN requires time investment, you have to find something to talk about. Twitter is a better format if you're just sharing random thoughts as they come to you.

> Side jab... hasn't posted on HN

Side side jab hasn't done an essay (one of the reasons I thought he was stepping down from YC somewhat) in quite some time.

Also this tweet is a good reason why on those essays he would always have someone read what he says first there are always 'thanks to so and so' for reading the essay.

Obviously there is some implied advice when PG says something. Look at how everyone is giving their 2 cents on a simple tweet.

He was the moderator here. He stepped down from that role when he retired from YC.

It would amount to stepping on the toes of the new mod to treat HN like his personal pool of friends. It would be harmful to YC because HN serves the company in various ways.

He has no such conflict of interest on Twitter.

That's considerate of you, but we'd love nothing better than for pg to come back here and treat HN as a pool of friends. It would make this community happier, and us too. And a happy HN is the HN that's most valuable to YC.

One cements your spot as a “thought leader” (blue verified check, very visible follower/retweet/like count, routinely used as a source by the media), the other not at all.

I think PG has a solid enough "personal brand" that he doesn't need to build it through being a twitterati "thought leader."

PG is stuck in the awkward no-mans-land between having f-you money and starting a rocket company. He achieved the first long ago, and will never achieve the second, so being a Twitter guru is a reasonable compromise.

From what I know about pg and Jessica, they would have no interest in starting a rocket company - even if they had infinite resources.

Figuring out how to get the smartest people in the world working on important problems (like rocket companies!) is way more their style. And they’re having incredible influence on that even in “retirement.”

Ironically, he cemented his spot as a thought leader by building HN. Even when he's not here, he still holds influence.

Definitely in many contexts this is appropriate.Elsewhere in this discussion someone mentions Amazon, who is famously customer 'obsessed'. However Amazon do watch their competitors closely also - AWS changes based on competitors and indeed the price of products on Amazon changes based on competitor prices. I personally think you should not worry and obsess over your competitors and definitely should focus on your customers, however ensuring you are not blindsided by a change that a competitor makes is really important.

Being aware of what competitors are doing is a good thing I think.

Aware? yes. Thinking about it for more than 5 minutes? probably not.

I’m not sure what spirit this is written in but as the author notes it absolutely doesn’t generalise. Actually it generalises less and less the smaller your company and the more critical your focus and USP is to survival.

Quite interesting quotes and even more interesting comments.

My take is that entrepreneurs need to be obsessed with their Market(s) and Domain expertise; which includes also the other players (competition) but not just competition per se.

Agree with PG.

I mean I'd love to have the free time to be able sit analyze and strategize against what my competitors are doing, but I'm too busy working on the next place which I believe will add the most value. In the end you'll end up with a different priority/feature-set and USPs that focusing and trying to replicate what your competitors are doing.

IMO the most important thing is to have a solid Customer base, they'll submit an infinite stream of issues/feature requests which will highlight where to focus your efforts on. Although it's also important to have confidence in innovating yourself as my best USPs have come from novel features that no-one has thought to ask for, as you'll pretty much only receive requests for features others have already done.

Yes both users ideas and self generated USP's are important.

But since mostly everything can be copied, doesn't it make sense to build a defensible strategy , building things your competitors will find hard to copy ?

And doesn't looking at competitors helps with that?


No one should take PG's quip to be anything more than advice for those who are running a dysfunctional ship due to excessive obsession with competitors.

There are likely two broad ways any business gets off the ground:

(1) Unintentionally (2) Intentionally

Google was likely unintentional (Brin and Page weren't attempting to create a business for their dissertation).

Amazon was quite clearly intentional.

Most startups are likely in (2).

VC-backed startups and startups hoping to obtain VC funding have a goal of gaining some amount of strong traction (thus increasing the likelihood of fast and significant growth).

If you're intentional, and you have a goal of obtaining the traction that's attractive in the VC universe, then competitive strategy is not something you can ignore. It's not something you myopically focus on, but it will help guide your positioning and development (among other things).

> doesn't it make sense to build a defensible strategy , building things your competitors will find hard to copy ?

How does looking at what your competitors are doing help with building a defensible strategy?

Either you're copying what they've already done and are playing catchup with already exists or you're somehow looking at what they haven't done to implement something you think they'd be hard to implement, in which case you're focusing on what your competitors are not doing instead of where you think will provide the best value to your Customers.

Which I believe is at the heart of what PG is saying, you should have relentless Customer focus and do what you believe delivers the most value instead of focusing on competing against your competitors.

Almost every link to Twitter posted here, when I click on it from an Android...gives me a "you're rate limited" page. Odd.

don't you re-invent the wheel a lot if you don't look it other solutions? Especially for things not in your core domain.

On the flipside, look too much at other solutions and your wheel starts looking like theirs.

Coming from art I'd say: don't be afraid of stealing a little. What matters in the end is your stroke, polish and focus on it.

Often good solutions even agree. I had it more than once that I build something and than found someone who had build a super similar solution.

I think the fine line for me would be: Don't be obsessed about details and movements of your competitors, don't assume everything they do is good. But check them out for some inspiration.

Actually especially those things you can copy from companies that are not even competitors (other core domain), you really should copy. E.g. check out nice empty-states or registration flows to jump start your first implementation (and than iterate for yourself).

I don't really think much about my competitors, although I must admit I flatter myself thinking they think about me.

This kind of recommendations are so simple but they have a really deep and truly meanings.

He goes into it in more detail, point 4 here: http://paulgraham.com/startuplessons.html

I have the same feeling. Thinking about competitors eats more than social networks.

YC explicitly moved from Boston to SV to pre-empt competition.

I mean presumably if someone has done a similar startup before you, you should be expected to know about what they did and understand why it worked or didn't work, and you should have some theory about what you're doing differently or what has changed in the world to make your startup viable now. And presumably you should treat your current competitors similarly.

When pg is saying that thinking about competition is a waste of time, he's not saying you should ignore the competition, only that you shouldn't sit there stressing out about it rather than working on your own startup.

If he hadn’t spent the thinking time, he wouldn’t have come to this realization. By wasting time, he gained experience. It was thus not wasted.

Gaining experience is inherently an inefficient process. It’s the nature of the beast. (And it’s tweetable).

True, but you can sometimes make up for that inefficiency with learned wisdom - other people's experiences. (Sometimes that comes in the form of tweets.)

Actually the only experience you can experience is your own, IMO. Reading a tweet is you having an experience involving someone saying something and you interpreting that and maybe imagining what they experienced, but it's different from actually experiencing what they had experienced from their perspective. The cost of experiencing from your perspective is still the same amount of attention, and the "innefficiency" is in not being able to experience more with the same amount of attention, it seems like; but on that; I don't think there is inneficiency or any making up for it, it's just about choosing which kinds of experiences to have (they still happen at the same rate of attention conversion).

Every minute I spent thinking about insightful quotes from modern day gurus was a minute wasted

One word: Blackberry.

I dont understand your point. I THINK you are suggesting that BlackBerry (RIM) would have been well served paying attention to competitors, particularly Apple. But that is what ultimately sent RIM on a downward spiral: focusing on competitors instead of customers. If they had focused on being the premier business oriented device things might have turned out different.

There are multiple factors at play, but focusing on only one factor can lead anyone to draw the wrong conclusions as you and the gp have done.

The gp mentioned RIM as a clear example of a company that did not focus on its competitor (Apple) and paid dearly for such a mistake, but that’s an incomplete reading of history.

First of all, Apple was only one of several competitors including Nokia, Samsung, SonyEricsson etc to RIM.

The iPhone introduced by Apple heralded a new class of mobile phones that are considered smartphones that were:

1. touch-based;

2. had larger screen real-estate;

3. fully Internet-capable (compared to pared-down Internet protocols like WAP, i-mode etc).

After the iPhone was launched, Google entered the ring with Android. The head of Android (who is ex-Apple) has publicly admitted to scrapping their v1.0 after he saw just how good the iPhone was. IOW, Android copied several concepts from Apple because the iPhone demonstrated what a smartphone should be capable of.

This imitation step is important as it marked an important shift in the smartphone market — the Overton window for smartphones capabilities had moved: will people continue to buy screen-constrained and Internet-constrained devices that feature a physical (high tactile feedback) keyboard OR screen- and Internet-unconstrained devices with a virtual (low tactile feedback) keyboard?

RIM bet the house on the former while the market was slowly but steadily moving to the latter. Of course betting against what customers were demanding is why BB lost against Android & iOS, not that RIM failed to imitate Apple to the letter.

I disagree. The last few years of BB included touch screen devices including some with touch keyboards. My view is that had BB leaned into the enterprise security solution that made the devices popular with businesses in the first place their story might have turned out different.

> The last few years of BB included touch screen devices including some with touch keyboards. My view is that had BB leaned into the enterprise security solution that made the devices popular with businesses in the first place their story might have turned out different.

Essentially, you are saying RIM should have focused their differentiation efforts on remaining the market leader in enterprise security solutions for mobile devices, right?

My argument, which you seem to have missed is that: the market’s perception of what constitutes a mobile device and the ecosystem surrounding mobile devices had been permanently altered by iOS and Android, but RIM did not fully realize this until it was too late.

The change in perception created knock-on effects in adjacent markets like in the mobile device management (MDM) industry. Whenever there is a change in perception, the behavior of market participants will change across the board, and this is particularly observable in buyer preferences.

As you say, BB was a leading vendor of enterprise security solutions in the MDM market with BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), so what changed?

RIM value proposition was that, to get maximum value out of a BES investment, your enterprise needed to standardize ALL employees whose job descriptions mandate access to email on-the-go on BB devices. Oftentimes this meant an enterprise would pay for a BES license, MS Exchange + MS ActiveSync license on top of the costs of procuring BB devices for ALL employees that need mobile email.

With the benefit of hindsight, can you see what was wrong with RIM’s business model?

1. High switching costs. The combination of BES + BB devices translates into vendor lock-in. You cannot use BES without a fleet of BB devices. You cannot permit use of BB devices in your enterprise without first purchasing a BES license. You needed to make a two-prong investment to receive value in return from RIM’s offerings at that time.

2. High operational costs. RIM was the only supplier you could buy from as long as you are invested in the BB ecosystem. IOW, pricing was not competitive—you wouldn’t have much leverage when RIM unilaterally decides to raise prices.

The steady rise of a trend — Bring your own device or BYOD [0] —meant that lots of current RIM customers could now lower their costs by allowing employees to buy a mobile device of their choice and at their own cost (which solves problem #1) and; they could avoid the problem of vendor lock-in by evaluating lower-priced MDM vendors that support multiple mobile OSes instead of just BB OS (which solves problem #2).

An additional benefit of the BYOD trend is that the lower costs afforded smaller companies the same benefits of MDM that had been beyond their reach due to RIM’s enterprise-focused pricing, while they were the dominant vendor.

As I said earlier, there are multiple forces at play. Not only did RIM introduce touch screens, they also embraced Android as an OS on their devices, but did it change anything? Absolutely not.

0: BYOD refers to the policy of permitting employees to bring personally owned devices to their workplace, and to use those devices to access privileged company information and applications. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bring_your_own_device

One word: startup

"Love your enemies". There is no enemy and no competitor.

I am fairly mentally exhausted at the moment. When I first read the message, and noted the author, I thought it said: "every minute I spent thinking about computers was a minute wasted." I was like, wow, that's a big change in course. Is he going to become a monk or something? Lol. time to turn off the computer.

I do wish he made that tweet and then it would be hilarious to see everyone inject truth into that statement and rationalize it from all possible angles.

"That's why YC is now more focused on biotech and food businesses. Computers are no longer the fastest growing market and YC is smart to adapt so quickly while other VCs are still playing catch-up"

Haha. I don't have much to add, but this seriously made me chuckle.

I misread it similarly, at first glance.

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