You Are Not Alone

When I first got the idea for Critic, I believed I had come up with something unique. I did not consider any existing competition for very long. Critic doesn’t fit the mold of the popular customer support tools I know about. You can’t respond to feedback like you can in Zendesk. Critic is designed to give you information to improve your product, not to manage support tickets. You can’t see error rates and user population statistics like you can in Crashlytics. That’s not Critic’s focus. Instead, Critic focuses on “actionable customer feedback.” That’s the best phrase I came up with to describe the mix of quantitative and qualitative data that helps you quickly solve problems. That choice in vocabulary led me to market Critic as a customer feedback tool.

However, that vocabulary deviated from that of my actual competitors. “Bug reports” is the phrase of choice, and missing that phrase caused me to miss my competition. That is, until I saw YCombinator announce their Winter 2018 batch. The very first startup listed, Buglife, is a direct competitor for Critic. I was completely surprised when I saw them. After I realized how I had missed Buglife, I was even more surprised to find several other similar SaaS offerings.

Competition is Healthy

While my knee-jerk reaction to this news was negative, I soon realized the opportunity I had in front of me. Fears of how to overcome a competitor’s head start subsided. Buglife and the others aren’t companies that I need to fight. They’re companies I need to learn from. So I’ve set out to do just that.

Market Validation at No Cost to You

The good news from YCombinator’s announcement is that Buglife has validated my idea. How fortunate I am to have more positive signals indicating I’m on the right track with my product! Not only is the Critic concept worth bootstrapping, it’s worth funding. Also, the concept is already providing value to users in a market segment I’m targeting. Those silly customers just signed up on the wrong site!

Lessons Learned Without the Pain

I didn’t stop with the news sitting in front of me, though. I began reading up on Buglife. Aside from their own site, I found little information online. I was able to find social media profiles for the founders, a TechCrunch article, and… That was about it at first. It ate at me: I knew Buglife had several hundred customers prior to YCombinator, but I didn’t know how they acquired them. However, should I find out, I’d hopefully be able to replicate their early success. After some more searching I found their Product Hunt posting from a few months back. There it sat, with nearly 300 upvotes. Those upvotes could have easily represented a few hundred new user registrations. I decided that I should try the same outlet and see if it sticks. I posted Critic on Product Hunt earlier this week.

Seeing Your Own Mistakes

While trying Buglife’s platform, I compared each step of the process to Critic. User registration, mobile app setup, reporting, and notifications all had similarities and differences to what I had implemented. The biggest difference I saw was a clear vision for Buglife’s user experience. It works out of the box a specific way with an opinionated user experience, and you have to dig deeper if you want to change that. Alternatively, Critic is wide open and gives much less guidance. Certainly, a first-time user evaluating these products would prefer the Buglife experience. This felt so incredibly obvious after seeing their product in action. I will be adopting a similar approach to Critic’s new user experience, ensuring that first-timers can get going more quickly.

Seeing the Competition's Mistakes

Naturally, I also identified certain aspects of Buglife that I consider inferior to Critic. Some of these are subjective, but others are objective. I encountered error pages in the dashboard, saw layout issues on some screens, and so on. Additionally, the user authorization model was different. Their permission model is organization-based, which is similar to where I started with Critic. However, I ultimately moved to a more granular product-based permission model. This gives Critic customers more control over information access and report notifications. Additionally, the model makes Critic a better fit for large enterprises and agencies that require more granular authorization rules.

Product Differentiation is Easier Than Customer Education

When I first created Critic, I did not recognize my competition. Therefore, I believed my biggest product concern would be educating customers on why Critic is valuable. A lot of my site content is focused on convincing potential customers that Critic’s concept is worthwhile. While you should always give potential customers an easy way to identify your product’s value, I now see that there is an existing educated market. I don’t need to educate customers on what they need. Now I can focus on helping customers see why Critic is the best solution to their recognized problem.

Comparing Critic to other solutions like Buglife, Bugsnag, or Instabug is relatively easy. By reviewing their pricing models, target audiences, and products themselves, I can come up with ways to uniquely frame Critic’s value. For example, I believe Critic to be much more extensible than other offerings. These companies all deeply identify with elegant bug reports, which is a great place to start. Opposite them, Critic is more of a developer’s playground, capable of being shaped into whatever product teams need. If presented properly, this versatility may become a key differentiator. Also, I considered bug reporting a definite use case for Critic, but only one use case. Experience ratings, app health reporting, and device auditing are capabilities that Critic was architected for. Since Critic can be used for bug reports, ratings, feature requests, and other scenarios, I can potentially market the platform as a broader enterprise solution than competitors offer today.

You May Not Win

When evaluating your competition, you may find that they appear superior in every way. The product design is prettier. Their marketing hits your audience better. The product functions better. Trying to overcome all of those advantages just to appear better than your competitors will not help you win customers. When you face a competing product that feels better in every way, you have a tough choice to make. You have to consider whether you can be the best at what you’re doing. That doesn’t necessarily mean being the top rated in every category. Your product can be ugly but immensely useful. Before trying to beat your competition at their own game, you should find the thing you will be best at and focus on doing that. That is the idea you will be most successful at building. Alternatively, even if you’re not the best solution in a space today, if you can become the best, keep going. Just because someone else has a head start today does not mean they will maintain it.

However, if your idea of being the best is simply matching the competitor’s best, you will continually fall behind. Instead, focus on what differentiates you from the competition. What is your unique value? What is something you know or have that can not be replicated easily? Perhaps it’s your knowledge of the market or where you believe it’s heading. Maybe you have data that others can not license. It could even be your network. Whatever it is, work on leveraging that unique thing instead of catching up to what already exists. You may find that you’re focusing on the wrong thing, but something even more appealing is just around the corner.

You Definitely Won't Win Everything

There are few products in the world that have 100% market share. Even the incredibly successful Salesforce—which is practically synonymous with “CRM”—has secured less than a quarter of  their potential market. So why sweat the competition? If you believe a competitor is your product’s biggest problem, you have either entered an over-saturated market or created a significantly inferior product. Either way, the competition is a scapegoat for a deeper problem. Almost every market has room for several competitors to thrive. Perhaps you need to identify a new market to pursue, improve the product itself, improve marketing, or improve your customer retention strategy. None of those areas require grappling with a competitor for a few remaining customers.

Competitors Can Work Together

Competing for Mind Share

Just as I have learned a lot in a short time from watching my competition, they can hopefully learn something from me. Years ago, I needed to build a recruiting pipeline for software developers willing to live in the Nashville area. I could have selfishly focused just on what I needed, hoarding candidates and only talking to people who wanted to work at my company. However, what I believed worked best was to coordinate efforts with others looking for developer talent in the area. I worked with a few area companies to refer developers to the best jobs we knew were available for their skills. We worked to develop programs and opportunities that would benefit all participants, not just those we would eventually hire for ourselves.

If I came across candidates that would fit better at a peer’s company, I would refer them. I wrote recommendations for people who left my team because I wanted them to seek out their passions and to remember their time working for me fondly when talking to other job seekers (and they did!). I collaborated with university programs and coding boot camps. Everyone I worked with either needed talent or was potentially talent that was going to end up elsewhere. However, by our combined efforts, everyone that contributed to the overall development of local software developer talent won. Great, intelligent people found their ways into the jobs we needed filled. It could not have happened if I worked in a vacuum. I believe it worked so well because people recognized when I was genuinely working for them instead of trying to force them into a job I needed filled. Even if I lost a great developer to a competitor, they would remember what I did and recommend my company to others.

Competing for Market Share

In the above instance, my product was a healthy community of great software developers. I did not build it myself. I collaborated with people who were actively competing with me for a limited talent pool. However, by combining our resources and putting in the time, we created new opportunities for each other. We helped other people get a start in great careers, sometimes helping them along a path that drastically changed their lives for the better. The outcome of that was beneficial to each of us.

Similarly, SaaS companies and software products in general can benefit more from collaboration than from protecting their proprietary information. Today I discovered some quick improvements I could make to my pricing model, onboarding flow, and vocabulary to attract more customers. Potentially, a competitor is reading this now and is considering adopting some of the ideas I outlined above. I’m okay with that, because the world is big enough for both of us.

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