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How to build your own unfair advantage against your competitors

Sachin Rekhi‏, a serial entrepreneur in Menlo Park, Calif.Handout

This story opens with a scenario implausible enough for you to file it under the heading “Only in Silicon Valley.”

Sachin Rehki says startup capital is now so easy to access in the Valley that too many people are launching companies. As a 34-year-old founder with two successful exits, he’s now advising would-be entrepreneurs not to quit their day jobs.

Here’s how Rekhi (pronounced Ray-kee) expressed his concern in a recent tweet: “Your startup will most likely fail. You need to find your unfair advantage, give 110%, and get lucky to beat the odds.”

Canadian entrepreneurs know that nothing comes easy — but most could benefit from an “unfair advantage.” Implicit in Rekhi’s warning is the notion that every winning business contains some unique attribute that can make all the difference. Leverage that advantage, and your business can become a winner, not a statistic.

Before reading on, ask yourself some questions. Does your business have an unfair advantage? What is it? How do you manage it? And how do you promote and enhance that advantage, to build an ever-deeper moat around your business and keep competitors at bay?

I meet many entrepreneurs who, sadly, can’t name a distinctive trait, let alone an unfair advantage. I once asked a manufacturing CEO “What is your company best at?” He seemed perplexed. To fill the silence, I offered some examples. “Is it your product, your service, customer relationships…?” “Hmm,” he finally concluded. “Depends on the day.”

Your unfair advantage could be anything. Beyond unique products, incredible value, or bend-over-backward service, it could be the company’s unique origin story, the founder’s personal reputation, customer knowledge, broad selection or ability to customize, engaged employees, reliability. McDonald’s initially made its name not so much on cheaper or better food, but on clean restrooms.

If you don’t have an unfair advantage, today’s the day to start building one.

Start by getting your brain trust, your management group or the entire team together to talk about what your company does best — and what constitutes your unfair edge. Don’t accept easy, early answers. Broaden the topic to include your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses — and then extend the conversation to your customers. Survey them to learn why they choose your products or services. Ask how they see you vis-à-vis competitors. Reassure clients that this is a genuine self-assessment, not some marketing gimmick, and most will be happy to give feedback.

Pack all these opinions and observations into one report, and your unfair advantage may jump out. Even if it doesn’t, you now have the data to develop one from scratch, by choosing a strength you’ve just identified. Appoint a working team to advise on how to turn that marginal edge into unfair advantage. Then promote the heck out of your bold new message.

Narrow advantages aren’t enough. “Whatever you’re doing, there’s an incumbent in your industry that has a more established brand or other advantages that make it the de-facto choice,” says Rekhi. “Even if your product is incrementally better, will prospects ever know about it? And even if they hear about your product, they’re probably doing fine without it.”

Rekhi says the best unfair advantage “is something hard to duplicate. For many small businesses, it will be velocity — you can move at breakthrough speed compared to your competition, not because of size, but because they have thoughtful, responsible decision-making processes that you likely don’t.” (At one big company where he used to work, Rekhi recalls that simply interviewing a customer required long delays for approval. Now at his third startup, Notejoy, he says, “I can just buy people a coffee at Starbuck’s and get feedback in minutes.”)

Here’s one unfair advantage you might not have thought of: your ability to hire great talent. If you truly believe in your business and can articulate a clear, inspiring vision, you can hire better people than your competitors by appealing to candidates’ need to do important work with inherent purpose, Rekhi says.

Rekhi founded Notejoy, along with his wife and cofounder, Ada Chen Rekhi, to create a more collaboration-friendly notes channel for business — faster than email, more focused than Slack, syncs better than Evernote. So I asked him: what is Notejoy’s unfair advantage? He named three:

“Speed is a huge part of what we’re doing.” In two years, Notejoy has achieved a feature set that rivals any of its competitors, including platforms from Google and Microsoft. Polish and delight. “We’re doing all the hard work of creating a delightful product and a truly great experience,” he says. In tech markets, he says, companies hoping to dislodge competitors with a “minimum viable product” are headed for trouble. “We’re not building an MVP,” he says. “We’re building the full-on delightful.” Reduced friction. Part of designing a great product, Rekhi says, is leaving out features that confuse or confound people. “So many new products are cluttered, not easy to use,” he says.

In an unfair world, less can be more.

Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship. He can be reached at rick@rickspence.ca

Twitter.com/RickSpence