They’re copying me! And other BS excuses that hold entrepreneurs back

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Our culture is obsessed with competition.

Just look at reality TV. For over a decade now we’ve been watching people try to outlast, outsmart, out-cook, and even out-model and out-drag-queen each other.

We love seeing the playing field narrow until confetti falls and a winner is crowned.

The world of business is another story.

Monopolies and monolithic firms have become the norm, and many founders get utterly frozen in the face of real, ongoing competition.

But if you’re building an app or digital product, competition is a good thing. It’s healthy. It means people want and need what you’re building. It means you might actually make some money.

When you learn that someone else is working on the exact same startup idea, don’t freak out or hit the brakes.

Instead, let’s talk about how to get your head straight and take your best shot at (gently) crushing those competitors.

Take it to a new (and better) level

If you have a good idea and you’re giving people something they need (whether it’s socks, milk, car insurance, or distractions from a very, very bad day), you’re going to have competitors.


It’s all part of the process.

Your job, however, is to build a better product. Your app or tool needs to have a smoother User Interface (UI), a more compelling User Experience (UX), and just be all-around more awesome.

Copying is never a good strategy, either.

It doesn’t make sense when you’re trying to create something that’s truly different — to find an unfilled niche or put your own spin on a familiar idea.

If Mark Zuckerberg had decided that MySpace had a stranglehold on social networking, we wouldn’t have Facebook.

And if the guys at Google had given up because Yahoo had the search engine thing covered, the tech world would be a VERY different place.

But Facebook offered social connections where MySpace was a digital scrapbook. Google built one of the cleanest UIs on the internet.

Find your point of differentiation and go all-in.

More choices = more overwhelming

Differentiation doesn’t mean cramming your app full of the same features as your competitors.

At least 60% of our clients at Appster try to add a laundry list of new features during the design process and end up delaying the launch significantly as a result.

When we’re talking about digital products, lean and simple almost always wins out.

Think about flashlight apps. There used to be a whole range of these apps that also included music, coloured lights, special effects and other add-ons.

Guess which one is the most popular? The app with one button that turns the flashlight on and off.

Most users want to see where they’re going, not start a dance party in the dark hallway (there’s a different app for that).

Still it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking more is better.

When you buy a car, you probably want all the features: air conditioning, sunroof, anti-lock brakes, bluetooth. Technology is not the same beast.

Our brain can only handle a few options without getting overloaded and short-circuiting. If someone needs proof, I always refer back to the jam study that Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar conducted in 1995.

Professor Iyengar and the research team set up a sample booth in a California grocery store featuring 24 different flavors of the same jam brand.

At regular intervals, they cut the sample selection down to just six flavors. Most customers tasted two flavors, whether they had encountered the large assortment or the small one.

While more people stopped to taste when 24 options were available, only 3% of those people bought a jar. Even though fewer people stopped and sampled when just six jams were on display, 30% of those tasters purchased the jam.

Too much choice can actually prevent people from taking your desired action. Cut the unnecessary options and keep it simple.

Focus on trends, not the other team

Once you’ve determined what sets your product apart, keep a sharp eye on your industry.

After all, business has never been static, but the tech world is like a treadmill that keeps running faster.

Think about Blockbuster Video and its iconic, blue-and-yellow logo. If you’re young enough to remember this now-defunct chain, I bet you also had a Blockbuster card in your wallet at some point. Those stores were everywhere.

Blockbuster’s marketing hammered home the message that they stocked more copies of the hottest new releases than anyone else.

Want to snag a copy of Meet the Fockers? The odds were better at Blockbuster — or at least that’s what the company wanted you to believe, and they were so obsessed with out-stocking the competition that they missed a deep fault line in the video rental market: streaming.

In came Netflix with its DVD-by-mail program. Soon, Netflix provided online video content — and we all know what happened next.

Blockbuster could have been Netflix, but it failed to innovate. It continued to compete on price and stock and missed a massive shift that occurred right in front of its eyes.

Watch out for the big dogs

While Netflix managed to slide in and capture the video market, I have to give the company credit for battling a behemoth (Blockbuster was valued at $5 billion in 2004, the height of its dominance).

In this case, Netflix triumphed because they saw an opportunity and a consumption change that the big guy missed.

If you’re building a product that’s up against 7–8 good-but-not-exceptional competitors, you can probably find a way to stand out.

Proceed with caution, however, if one of those competitors is backed by a massive company, like Electronic Arts, Apple or Google.

Your point of distinction is going to be extremely tough to find. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but you’ll be up against some serious money and solid infrastructure.

Learn from someone else’s mistakes (and $$)

When I lead design workshops at Appster, we pick at least two of our client’s competitors and run them through a full range of user testing.

We check out the onboarding. We look at where we (and our testers) drop off before the signup is complete, where there’s a break in the experience, and what feels confusing — so we can avoid the same traps.

To be clear, we’re not trying to copy ANYTHING from these other players.

Products with a similar purpose or focus will often have the same challenges, so it’s smart to explore all the possible stumbling blocks — and how to avoid them — before we start coding.

Build for users, not your mom

It sounds laughable, but it happens soooo often.

A client receives a prototype based on careful research, user analysis, best practices in design and content strategy, and then they show it to their mom and get a thumbs-down.

Guess what? It’s a drag that your dog sitter isn’t feeling the colour blue, but unless you’ve built an app that connects pet parents with qualified caregivers, it doesn’t matter what he or she thinks.

If you’re working with a smart, qualified dev team and you’ve gone through all the necessary steps of market research, informed design and user testing, only real (or target) user opinions matter.

Even your own feelings about specific details take a backseat to what living, breathing users say.

Put customers at the center

Let’s assume you’ve nailed the UX and UI and all the details of your product. No big deal, right? Now you need to market it properly — and effectively. There are two common approaches:


If you were selling an MP3 player (which would be a very bad idea in 2017), an internally-focused campaign would highlight the battery life, how many songs you could store and play, and features like size and portability.


When Apple released the iPod, everyone knew it was a game-changer. No more lugging a Discman to the gym (people actually did this) or carrying a wallet case of CDs. Customers could look up the battery life and storage, so Apple wisely focused on how the product made you feel. They showed people dancing in the streets and generally living a cooler, more creative life, thanks to the iPod.

Clearly, there are times when you need to highlight a feature or go deep on specs, but remember that users only care how these details will make their lives easier, better, cheaper, or more fun.

Show them why your app is a must-have. Show them why it matters.

Test, learn, and test again

Creating a seamless UX is an art and a science — which means that it’s rarely perfect out of the gate. That’s where testing comes in.

We do repeated, A/B split testing on nearly every part of the products we create, from checkout screens to signup pages.

It’s the only concrete way to determine which option works best, before iterating and testing again.

It sounds obvious, but remember that you need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish with each test.

  • Do you want to maximize conversions?
  • Keep people on the page longer?
  • Encourage them to take a specific action, like sharing with a friend or leaving a comment?

Start with your goal and work backwards to find the best solution.

Candy Crush is a perfect example of learning what works and building on that knowledge. It’s still one of the most popular games in the app stores, but let’s be honest; it’s not the most innovative game.

At least 300 rivals could beat it on graphics alone. But its creators have doggedly focused on driving new users into the app. Candy Crush is incredibly viral and converts into sales at every possible turn.

In this case, strategic marketing has turned a decent game into a mobile phenomenon.

Be flexible and stay open to change

We all love stories of the smart pivot.

Flickr launched as an online role-playing game that included a photo-sharing tool. YouTube was a dating site before it became the world’s largest video platform.

The solutions always seem obvious when you look in the rearview mirror. Yet, it’s not easy to change course when you’ve been fixed on a certain product, service or market.

Shifting requires some bravery — and a little faith. If it’s the right move, though, you’ll see the results.

Many of our clients have also launched apps that took off in unexpected places or hit big with a surprising market segment.

These stories highlight the need to stay nimble and flexible.

Create the best product you possibly can, focus all your love and energy on the users, and keep an eye out for fundamental market changes.

If you’re on the right track, the competition will try to run alongside you.

Let them. Learn from them. Then crush them — on your own terms.


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