Tag: strategy


Playing to Lose

I heard a bunch of different pitches from startups this week that made me think: too few startups are playing to win. Most people have a strategy for moving from point A to point B but I’m hearing more and more strategies for getting “better” not becoming the “best”. I think it’s a problem.

Here are some strategies that I consider Playing to Lose:

  • You don’t have a strategy. No further explanation necessary.
  • You only have one strategy. A good sign that you are playing to lose is that you can’t describe several alternative strategies in detail. A strategy is only as good as the ones you considered, but rejected. Be a skeptic.
  • You don’t understand the cost of success. When people plan to scale a business they often forget that revenues don’t scale by themselves without a some kind of scaling of expenses. Take headcount. Double headcount and I bet you’ll more than double HR expenses. Double the feature set of your product and I bet it doesn’t maintain itself anymore. These ‘diseconomies’ of scale better be built into your strategy.
  • Your winning strategy is your losing strategy in disguise. Sometimes I hear a strategy for winning that sounds a lot like a strategy for losing. Here’s an example: Your platform is so feature-rich and versatile that it can be used by anyone. Your strategy is to sell it to anyone. But soon you’ll realize that all of your customers are different and all your recurring license revenues are replaced by low-margin service fees for customization. Yep, that’s your winning strategy.

I think you can avoid Playing to Lose by spending more time understanding your winning scenario and making sure it holds up to scrutiny. Why do you think your cost structure will be leaner than other comparable companies? Why will acquisition costs go down, not up? What things get more difficult, not easier, the more you achieve success?

Are you sure your idea of winning is actually winning?

Next up: Playing for the tie


Competitive Analysis for Startups: The Goal

One of the hardest things for emerging companies to get a handle on is analyzing the competition. Investors grimace when we hear “there is no competition” because outside of the world of patents, it’s just not true. But on the other hand, what’s the point of starting a new company when there are lots of competitors, implying a crowded space? Entrepreneurs often get lost somewhere between “no competition” and “too much competition”. This leads to unconvincing business plans or, worse, a strategy that’s blind to real competitive threats.

What’s the goal of competitive analysis?

For most entrepreneurs trying to convince people about a new product, the goal seems to be to prove, at all costs, that what they have is unique. There’s a standard series of tricks to accomplish this, two of my favorites of which are:












It’s pretty easy to define your competitive analysis in such a way that you appear totally unique. The question is, are you defining criteria that your customers care about?

“Competitive Intelligence” vs. “Competitive Analysis”

Whether you’re preparing a VC pitch deck or just strategizing about your business, remember that your real goal isn’t to show that you have a competitive advantage. Why? Because you might not. The real goal is to be an expert about your competitive landscape (and a paranoid one at that). The real goal of the Competition section of your business plan is to impress the reader that you are a) an expert about your competition and b) more paranoid than the reader (since the reader isn’t the one running the business).

The bad news is that being a real expert about your competition takes more time than creating a 2X2 matrix. But the good news is that you’ll be much better prepared for conversations with customers and investors who love pointing out that “Product X already does that”.

Stop Being Afraid to Talk About Your Competition

The takeaway is that you shouldn’t be afraid to have a competitive analysis that seems to be full of competitors. Your job is to show that you have a sophisticated understanding of your industry and where you fit in. I’m always more interested in how a startup is going to compete rather than why they don’t have to.