Column: Look beyond competition to find customers

April 2, 2013 

There’s no such thing as an original idea.

I say this because almost every time I hear an entrepreneur’s idea, I think, “That sounds a little like Startup X.”

Now, this is quite normal.

When you’re trying to wrap your brain around a new concept, it’s human nature to relate what you’re hearing to something you already know.

Most times, as the pitch continues, my thinking changes to “Hmm, that sounds a lot like Startup X.”

And sometimes, it turns into, “OK, that sounds exactly like Startup X.”

And this is not a problem.

The chances of anyone coming up with an idea for a product or service that is completely unique, original and never-been-done are pretty much nil.

Even if the practical application of the idea hasn’t been adopted by the mainstream or even hit the market, chances are great that someone, somewhere, is working on getting it there.

The problem arises when Startup X is brought to the attention of the pitching entrepreneurs and they get that blank, panicked look in their eyes.

Competitive analysis, the process of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a company’s competitors, is a boring, depressing and perpetual process that should begin the moment the cartoon light bulb disappears from over your head, and continue until your company is a monopoly.

It’s a crucial and often overlooked part of the startup process, and even when it happens, it’s usually forgotten by the time the product has launched.

Both of those scenarios are quick ways to failure.

However, the solution might not merely be to strive to be better than the other companies that do what you do. Businesses should also be looking at what people aren’t buying in an effort to gain customers and attract attention.

“Testive’s main competitor isn’t any of the online education solutions that are out there,” said Miro Kazakoff, CEO and co-founder of Testive, an online tutoring services company making the transition from Boston to Durham. “It’s the people who choose to do nothing or those who buy high-end tutoring services. Watching our online competitors means we’d only develop for the small group of people who are considering our product already, not the 99 percent of people who are ignoring us.”

In that sense, competition is usually a good thing.

“Somebody is clearly paying them a lot of money for their product, and seeing value from them,” said Daniel Chalef, CEO of Raleigh-based KnowledgeTree, an online software company. “Bingo! … Market validation. Now, go work out why many of the competitor’s prospects aren’t buying, fix that problem, and make money.”

“Continue to watch what competitors are doing,” Chalef said. “But spend most of your time listening to your customers and building what they need.”

Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco or online at

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