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When your business has lost its competitive edge, it’s time to take a long, hard look at your product, credibility, and most importantly – what your customers think and want. Taking the first step to reflect on your business and make necessary changes can be quite confronting for some business owners, but according to Michael McQueen, Futurist, Author of How to Prepare Now for What’s Next: “The rule of thumb is this: you can either go big, boutique or broke. If you can’t compete on size or scale, compete on uniqueness.”

In this issue of Let’s Talk, we spoke to a range of business leaders whose tips and advice include:

  • Make it clear what your point of difference is
  • Create a credible reputation
  • Be the best, not the first
  • Understand why you’re lagging through product and market research
  • Be open to change, don’t make the mistake of being ‘too precious’ about making changes to your product

So, when you’re lagging competitors, how can you change the rules of the game?  Let’s hear what the experts have to say …

Phoebe Netto, Founder, Pure Public Relations: Obtain some high-impact sales and marketing help. Talk about pricing, growth hacking, your target market, sales funnels and proven ways to attract and retain clients. Your competitors are almost certainly talking about these things, which accounts for their success, so you need to make it abundantly clear what your point of difference is and create a credible reputation for your business that is greater and more appealing than theirs.

This means as soon as your business attracts your ideal client, they have a compelling reason to choose you without many reasons notto choose you. Everything from social proof such as reviews and testimonials, positive social media attention, and having your expert advice touted in the media (media relations) will add to the evidence that you’re the best and they have made the right decision to do business with you.

Stephen Barnes, Principal, Byronvale Advisors: Lagging competitors does not need to be seen as a bad thing.  Apple make a point of lagging behind with new product launches e.g. the launch of the Apple Watch was a year after Pebble.  Why – because they wanted their product to be the best not the first.  They understand their customers and what they value.  Apple’s priority was to delight their customers.  The same principle can apply to new and small businesses that are developing their value proposition or have a new or innovative product.  You do more damage to your brand and business by being first with a sub-standard product than by lagging competitors but delivering a superior product.

Andrew Joyce, Co-Founder, Found Careers: Understanding why you’re lagging the competition is the first step to changing the game; this requires both product and market research, but also as many conversations as you can possibly have with both your customers and theirs. Once you understand where you’re losing, you can either try to ‘beat them at their own game’ (i.e. build a better widget) or spend the time to understand where their weaknesses are. You can then either focus on demonstrating the strength of your product in the area they’re most poorly rated, or developing a new product that works alongside theirs, but fixes the identified issues.

Michael McQueen, Futurist, Author of How To Prepare Now For What’s NextThe opportunity for any business that is lagging competitors is to embrace the position of market challenger and look for a point of differentiation or leverage. The rule of thumb is this: you can either go big, boutique or broke. If you can’t compete on size or scale, compete on uniqueness. The key questions to ask are: what can we DO, what do we KNOW and what do we OWN that give us an uncommon edge. Remember the old marketing adage too: it’s better to be different than better.

Alan Manly, Managing Director of Group Colleges Australia, author of The Unlikely EntrepreneurBad news travels fast, except when you need it to. Learning that you are lagging the competition results in anger towards ungrateful customers and plain rage towards the competition. Remember, knowledge is power. Time to reconnect with your market. Ask not so much of what went wrong but what are customers buying, and more importantly and sometimes a little different, what do they want that you can provide.

Matthew Bateman, Co-founder of The Property Mentors, author of Let’s Get RealIn business, certain rules never change. If you want to pick up your game honestly ask yourself these 2 questions:

  1. Am I providing a product or service that the market genuinely needs and/or wants and is willing to pay for? And if so,
  2. How am I providing that product or service in a way that is different/better/or more competitively than everyone else is?

Or even better yet ask your customers? When was the last time you picked up the phone and actually asked your customers how they think you are doing as a business and where you could perhaps improve your game? Or send out a survey to your last 100 customers with a prize commensurate with the amount of information you hope to gather from the survey. If you are seriously underperforming against your competitors, you might also like to try becoming a “secret shopper” with them and see if you can identify what they are doing differently to you.

Sreelesh Pillai, General Manager, Freshworks Australia: Benchmarking your success against competitors can be difficult as most companies have their own vision of success. While one company might prioritise revenue, another might prioritise customer satisfaction.

No matter where your focus is, you can change the game by disregarding the position your competitors are in. For us as a business, we prioritise on growing our customer base along with customer satisfaction. As much as we can, we work closely with every one of our customers, constantly responding to their needs. This keeps us sharp and completely in touch with the market.

Ultimately, businesses need to focus on the areas that sets the company apart from others – improving on what’s valuable to your customers will help you achieve your unique vision of success.

Noah Abelson-Gertler, CEO, ShareRoot: Look ahead of the curve and build quickly towards what will be needed in nine to 12 months rather than what is needed now. Since the competitors are already ahead and selling the features you plan to build over the next three months, the market opportunity for the near-term features are small.

Identify the feature that your clients like most and expand on that feature and that feature alone. Often the answers are in your clients’ preferences and just because your competitors haven’t identified those answers it doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Rhys Taylor, Regional Director, Aerohive: If your rivals are ahead of you it’s best to take a step back and take stock of what’s happening (or going wrong) within your organisation. It’s important to take a humble, honest and transparent approach during this process so gaps within the business can be identified and rectified before it’s too late.

Many business leaders make the mistake of being ‘too precious’ – some bordering on arrogance – about making drastic changes to their products, solutions or organisational structure. It’s usually too late by the time they realise it or are ready to admit it. Research in Motion/Blackberry is a good example of this – the warning signs were ignored to the eventual detriment of the company.

It’s also important to get feedback from your end customers to gauge the quality of your customer service. You can change the rules of the game by offering amazing customer service to ensure repeat business for years to come.

Sabri Suby, Founder and CEO, King Kong: You can’t out-market a behemoth competitor – they have too much money and too much power behind them. But your opportunity lies in the fact that such large companies will usually have basic marketing with most of their money going towards brand marketing, not creating value in the market place.

You can compete by identifying what these competitors are not willing to provide to their customer, and then ensuring you provide that value. Take King Kong, our market is saturated – there are over 4,000 digital marketing agencies in Australia. While they are advertising: “get an SEO quote now”, we are pushing out eBooks and 2-hour webinars to educate the market and give them value that these established agencies haven’t been giving. We are the fastest growing digital marketing agency because we are providing value in a saturated market.

Vu Tran, Co-founder, GO1: One of the best ways to change the rules of the game (to beat rivals) is to make the competition irrelevant. This approach is well documented in the best-selling book, Blue Ocean Strategy.

Companies lagging behind must ask:

  • are the areas what you’re focusing on allowing you to rewrite the rules of the game
  • what can you offer customers that no one else can

Companies must be clear on their USP – it’s not about beating the competition on price or features but on your unique selling proposition. Get rid of things you’re focusing on that others can do just as well or better.

We adopted the Blue Ocean strategy closely when developing our start-up. In the corporate learning space, we didn’t want to compete in a market like LMS (learning management system) which has over 600 players. We focused on creating a new category and becoming the world’s largest aggregator of workplace training where competition is almost non-existent. It’s been a great lesson for us on the benefits of focusing on something you can do that no one else can.

 James Wakefield, Co-founder, InStitchu: Don’t play the same game as your competitors — create your own game, set your own rules and stand out in the market. My co-founder Robin and I were working corporate careers when we saw a gap in the market for affordable, custom, tailored suiting. When we launched InStitchu in 2011, we didn’t have direct competition, we were making up the rules as we went along.

The market was filled with very traditional models that had been largely unchanged for a long time and simply weren’t right for today’s consumer. We didn’t have a deep fashion and retail background which enabled us to approach everything with a fresh perspective that allowed us to question the status quo in the market and establish InStitchu on its own terms. Every traditional suit retailer we spoke with said we wouldn’t be able to make the business model work—through our continued growth and success, we’ve been able to prove them wrong.

Bernadette Schwerdt, Founder of The Australian School of Copywriting and author How to Build an Online Business: If you’re lagging behind the competitors, don’t try to beat them at their own game. Find a point of difference you can own that separates you from the pack.  The best way to do that is to focus on a niche market that others are ignoring. For example, a yoga studio with loads of competitors could offer a men’s yoga class as a way of offering something different.  A financial planner could offer a video series for Millennials to help them understand their super.  A personal trainer could offer a 15-minute meditation class before the session as a value add. If you’re being hammered by the competitors, don’t keep doing what they’re doing.  Do a deep dive into a profitable niche segment and give them something the others aren’t.

Emma Bannister, CEO of Presentation Studio, author Visual Thinking: Most of us fear competition, but is it actually a bad thing? Competition keeps us on our toes, always facing forward and looking to the future. Presentation Studio is in a really niche industry, so any competition helps raise awareness about the presentation industry as a whole. It helps highlight the value and importance of clear communication and presentations. Rather than fear it, especially if you think you’re falling behind your competitors, what you really need to do is distinguish yourself away from the crowd. Focus on selling your uniqueness and why that is so important and special. That is your competitive advantage today.

Linda Simonsen, Future People: Consider making emotional intelligence your competitive differentiator. Focus on how you make your customers and employees feel. By putting yourself in the customers shoes; thinking, feeling and experience your product from their point of view, enables you to design solutions that work. It’s very easy to get internally-focused and that’s often when our competitors get ahead. The best way to design things that customers want is to co-design with them and collaborate. Whilst many companies focus on product and price to differentiate, it’s important to remember that culture is the one thing that sets great companies apart as well– it can be a true competitive edge and is the one thing that competitors can’t copy. How do you make your employees feel? How do they feel about the work they do and how do they make customers feel? Make this a competitive priority and reap the results.

Noah Abelson-Gertler, CEO of ShareRoot: Look ahead of the curve and build quickly towards what will be needed in nine to 12 months rather than what is needed now. Since the competitors are already ahead and selling the features you plan to build over the next three months, the market opportunity for the near-term features are small.

Identify the feature that your clients like most and expand on that feature and that feature alone. Often the answers are in your clients’ preferences and just because your competitors haven’t identified those answers it doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Matt Butterworth, CEO and Co-Founder of Easy Weddings: If you want to beat your competition, then obsessing over your customers is the first rule. Even if your product is slightly inferior, if you have every other touch point with clients right you are likely to come out on top.

You also want to look at competing on a different level. If you’re battling over market share and lagging behind then always look for the opportunity to become number one at something. That’s how you change the game. Maybe you’re number two at building PCs, but you could become number one at building smaller computers.

Look for a niche you can dominate and become number one in that niche. It will then become a lot easier for you to do business if you are number one.

Tim Bos, Co-founder and CEO, ShareRing: I like to subscribe to the Blue Ocean strategy (by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne) of running a business. If you are constantly trying to ‘compete’, than you’ll never win. Instead, you need to create a blue ocean of uncontested market space to operate in. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to come up with a whole new product line or service offering. You just need to change the rules around how you’re offering those products or services. By doing this, you will make your competition irrelevant, and your business will have the opportunity to thrive on its own merits.

Anna Thomas, COO of Stockdale & Leggo: Instead of perpetually playing catch-up with competitors, business leaders must learn to innovate and offer something customers can’t find from anyone else. In order to set your business apart, it’s important to be able to put yourself in your customers’ shoes and anticipate their every need. Take a fresh look at their paint points and consider how you can help fill in any gaps – and give them more than they bargained for. Within my own business, we know that moving house can be one of life’s most stressful events, so we set out to find an innovative way to improve the process. By introducing a complimentary new service which manages every facet of our customers move from relocation to organising utilities and insurance, we have been able to set ourselves apart from our competitors and revolutionise the entire way we do business.

Nathan Ruff, Co-Founder & CEO, HooZu: If a competitor is doing well, great, look at their process, but then look past it. What aren’t they doing? What are their client’s residual pain points? Figuring out a solution to these, then building your offering around it will help you to create a new model, one that really shakes things up.

HooZu operates in the influencer social content marketing space. A lot of agencies’ modus operandi is to get the biggest names with the fattest followers on their books, regardless of audience quality, or how suitable their content is. Frequently there are also no set metrics to measure ROI, leaving brands sceptical and confused about their investment.

So, instead of trying to beat our competitors at their own game, we’ve invested in technology and partnerships and applied a scientific approach to content creation and influencer selection.

James Mawhinney, Managing Director, Mayfair 101: Obtaining a competitive advantage requires innovative thinking, but only once the basics have been covered.  Too many business owners overlook the value in speaking with their customers directly to obtain feedback on how they can improve their business.  By creating an environment which encourages constructive feedback, listening to what customers have to say, and involving them in the re-positioning of your product or service you can achieve remarkable results for minimal outlay.

David Hickey, Director of Strategy for APAC, Meltwater: It’s important to look at the bigger picture and have a 360 degree understanding of what’s happening across the industry. This means staying on top of and understanding the online and offline footprint of all your competitors. News stories and social media are a great place to start, but there is a multitude of information for you to uncover.
From patent filings to job postings, all of your competitors are leaving small traces of competitive insights that anyone can find. For example, a recent job ad for a Head of Prime to run Australia’s operations indicates that it is on track for its mid-2018 rollout of the service.
These scattered breadcrumbs from outside a business’s four walls can help you better understand their strategy, points of differentiation and the gaps in the market, which are all opportunities to change the rules of the game.
Having a clear understanding of where you stand, what your competitors are already doing, as well as what they’re planning next will allow you to make more informed decisions that steer your business in the right direction.


Tara Commerford, Vice President and Managing Director, GoDaddy ANZ: For businesses struggling to keep up with the competition, knowing the right time to drop a concept and pivot is vital. All too often, businesses become fixated on a particular strategy or business model and are not open to change.

A key factor in some of Australia’s most successful businesses, such as Canva and Airtasker, is their openness to experimenting with new ideas and their ability to recognise early when something isn’t working, take on board the learnings and move on to something new. Being prepared to break ties with a strategy that is not working is critical to building your business and getting ahead of the competition.

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Rebecca Thacker

Rebecca Thacker

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