Competing with (very) large companies

In many spaces you can find yourself competing against very large players. I’m convinced that as long as you build something which your users love, it’s possible to grow your business in those spaces even as an indie/tiny team.

For our existing product, we had a large competitor when we started, and another large one emerged afterwards, so we’ve had some experience with this. Around ten years ago we launched aΒ company intranet SaaS toolΒ for small companies. Lots of the software at the time was either very slow, clunky or enterprisey/complicated.

The large competitor at the time was Confluence, and to a smaller extent SharePoint. We launched with a nice drag&drop editor with blocks you could drag on a page to create wiki docs, forms/databases, share files and so on. If that approach sounds familiar, you might have heard other companies which then launched afterwards like Notion. Not exactly tiny players πŸ˜‰

Even as a small indie shop though, it’s been a great market for us. With Thymer, the app we’re building right now, we’ll again be competing in a busy space. For the same reasons it worked for our first app, we think competing in a market with larger players is definitely possible again, by having our own unique ideas and focus.

We focus on a different part of the market

Having a large competitor also means the market is large. It’s very rare for any product to be the best in class for every single person or company in such a large market.

If your solution is better for a subset of those users, a specific niche in the market, go after that. The reason you’re building a product in the first place is probably because you have a vision to make something better, improve on something. So focus on that and zoom in on what makes you different. Positioning yourself in the market this way helps you stand out.

Taking the example of our existing app again, we specifically focused on “intranets for small-medium companies” there, and that has worked out great for us. Technically we could have positioned it as “note-taking” for consumers, or a “wiki” or enterprise software. Especially as technical founders with a very horizontal product, it would have been tempting to try to be “everything to everyone”, but it makes it harder to get traction (especially when starting out without network and choosing the bootstrapped route). We found a corner of the market which was ripe for disruption and zoomed in on that.

With Thymer too we focus on a very niche audience. If something catches on, you can always grow from there. Even something as niche as “people who have todo.txt files” in our case will probably be a good starting point to grow from (that includes plenty of makers and small creative teams we should be able to reach). We don’t bother competing against feature sets of large public project management companies.

There are many other ways of carving out a corner. Like taking a single theme, such as products focusing on privacy when their competitor doesn’t. Or launching in a very specific vertical you know a lot about and a solution doesn’t exist. Or by using any other aspect of your product, like a unique pricing model.

We use our small team size to our advantage

There are always things your larger competitors simply won’t be able to do.

For example, we have competitors where the growth and profit clearly comes from the enterprise segment. They can’t afford to focus too much on smaller-medium businesses, which works well for us.

We also focus on automating a lot, keeping costs low and run the company as a tiny team with no investors. That way we can charge prices in segments of the market which competitors simply cannot match but are super profitable for us.

You can also jump on new trends much quicker. You’ll make a change or publish something before your large competitor can say “circle back re- outlook meeting”. A canoe will turn faster than an oil thanker after all. That can turn existing popular products stale, which is an opportunity for a new small player. You’ll be able to expand in niches this way, which competitors will happily ignore.

Even aspects which might seem like a disadvantage at first can be a benefit. Take handling customer support with a tiny team. Especially when we just started out and didn’t have the social proof from larger customers yet, companies would email us from time to time and ask about our support structures, and whether we could support a company of their size. Well, how often does it happen that you can email the CEO of a large company directly, they will look into your issue personally, and reply with a fix within a day? So far customers agree that’s a real benefit!

We don’t worry about the competition

Finally, it’s important to just stay focused on your own vision and don’t mind the competition too much. We just build what we think and know our customers love. When we just pay attention to that, the rest will fall into place.

The internet is a really big place, and even with large competitors who will out-marketing or out-spend you, there will always be plenty of people you can find who will prefer your approach! Especially as an indie maker, you only need a small % to be successful (even more so in B2B, where a dozen or two customers might literally be enough to run your business).

Not saying you shouldn’t dream big though if that’s your goal! Here’s a fun thought experiment. Let’s say you would have launched just a bit earlier than a competitor, or the press had picked up on you sooner. Would your competitor have been unsuccessful? Would they have canceled their product and launch? Probably not, and neither should you. As long as you have a product that users love and you can reach them – and that’s where the real challenge is of course – the chance that you cannot coexist with (or even outgrow) large competitors is extremely small.

You can follow us on Twitter @jdvhouten and @wcools and look for #80daystartup

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