Competition can be stiff. It can be brutal. Alternatively, sometimes it seems like your product is selling into a greenfield with no competition at all. I was recently asked by a founder, “How should I think about analyzing my competition?” Below we layout a basic framework for understanding your competition either direct, secondary, or indirect and apply it to the Continuous Deployment (CD) category. We advise taking a wide versus narrow approach to competition as adjacent solutions could move into your startup’s space over time.
Competition can fit into three categories: direct, secondary, and indirect. Direct competitors are pretty easy to understand. They do the action in a relatively similar way. Secondary competitors do same action in a different way. Indirect competitors do a different action with conflicting outcomes. Businesses compete on the attractiveness of the outcome of your product versus alternatives.
Let’s use the CD space as an example. Direct competitors include open source offerings like Spinnaker and Argo. There are closed source solutions like Harness. There are offerings from the cloud vendors like GCP Cloud Deploy and AWS CodeDeploy. I wrote a blog post on CD and at that time 14 direct CD offerings. Finally, if you are offering a CD solution you are directly competing with teams that have spent engineering resources to build their own tools.
Simultaneously there are also secondary competitors in the category like Ansible, Puppet, Chef, and HashiCorp Terraform. We’ve spoken with teams that use these technologies in a similar fashion even though they aren’t CD solutions per say. For example, Terraform is a tool for building, changing, and versioning infrastructure safely and efficiently. But then teams tested the utility of the tool for other use cases, in this case CD. These solutions compete on outcomes but solve CD in a different way.
Finally, with indirect competitors we need to get a little more creative. There are two different jobs a customer wants to accomplish, but the jobs themselves are competing with each other. In this case, developers want the code to be pushed to production quickly, but they want it to be production-ready, which requires precautions. Continuous integration solutions, which automatically run a build to facilitate a test of the software to prevent issues earlier in the development lifecycle, are an example of indirect competition. Solutions like CircleCI and Jenkins fit into this bucket. They perform a different action of defining and orchestrating job executions such as build and test.
Indirect competition includes businesses that are tangentially related to yours. It is handy to think about indirect competition as a founder evaluates how to expand their product catalog or build productive partnerships. Continuing the example above, CI solutions have begun moving into CD. Another degree away, code repos like Github and Gitlab have also moved in the same direction. GitLab became a software development lifecycle platform and GitHub added Actions for CI/CD.
Customers don’t experience your solution in a vacuum. Rather, customers experience it in the context of other products vying for their mindshare. Founders should think creatively about who their competitors are and will be. It may not always be obvious.