Rules for Entrepreneurs: Compete and Collaborate

competition

Photo by Roger Barker on Flickr.

Google and Apple are not only competitors… they are collaborators. Indeed, Apple and Google both offer top level smartphones – The iPhone from Apple and the assortment of Android devices by Google (Google not only has its own phones but is the main proprietor of the Android open source project).

In the same world, Samsung and Apple are rivals (and becoming even more rival-ous) with competing smartphones (Samsung runs Android) sparking ferocious lawsuits back and forth, but Samsung is also a major supplier of parts to Apple.

This segment of my continuing series on Rules of Entrepreneurship is all about knowing when and how to compete and when collaboration is a better option. They are not mutually exclusive. This is a natural segue from my last post where I suggest that entrepreneurs focus on doing one thing well.

Principle: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

It frustrates me to watch startups (usually not very good ones) try to reinvent the wheel. A classic example of this was from back in 2007 when I was sitting in a Starbucks in Columbia, MD. We had a group of entrepreneurs who gathered there on a daily basis and cowork together.

One of the guys I was working with introduced me to a pair of African-American entrepreneurs and he wanted me to hear about what they were building. I sat down and listened to their pitch. They were building the “YouTube for the African-American community”.

Full stop.

What? Why? Why not use YouTube?

They were well into the process of building an entire video platform from the ground up, complete with their own video encoding technology, instead of leveraging what YouTube (and subsequently Google) already created.

The entrepreneurs real mission was creating a video-sharing community for African-Americans, not creating video technology for African-Americans to use. I told them that day that they should abandon attempts to build their own video service, and instead leverage YouTube (which is built and maintained by really smart people at Google) to build the community they really wanted to build.

Why re-invent the wheel? You distract yourself from your core goals.

Sidenote: I have never heard of or from those entrepreneurs since.

Collaborate

As an entrepreneur, part of the process is identifying your competition. We certainly have done that at WP Engine. Sometimes, it is to your benefit to team up with your competition to achieve a common goal. Remember, business is business and it’s not personal. Don’t let your desire to “win” get in the way of your ability to get ahead.

Also, remember the age-old saying, “A rising tide lifts all ships”. What is good for your competition is often good for the entire industry you’re in. Everyone wins.

Certainly that’s not always the case, but it certainly isn’t not always the case.

Compete

In my opinion, competition is a bottom-line issue and there are lots of ways to positively affect your bottom line. Usually, competition does not equate to a zero-sum game, an assumption that rookie entrepreneurs tend to make. (I did this a lot in 2006, 2007 while at b5media and trying to take pot shots at competing blog networks – years later, I find it all kind of silly).

When you do choose to take on direct competition, keep it narrow, precise and for a specific purpose. Don’t allow personal feelings to affect your business strategies and, in the process, keep the door open to cooperation with your competition in other areas.

Next week, I’ll continue this series and talk a bit about release cycles – which is always a fun debate. If you’re not already subscribed to this blog, do so now. Also, follow me on Twitter where I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship, WordPress and a healthy dose of sports on the weekend.

Rules for Entrepreneurs: Do One Thing Well

building

Photo by bartb_pt on Flickr
I have been an entrepreneur for just shy of 5 years full-time. Before that, I was engaged in entrepreneurial “things” for the previous 6 years. 4 companies. I am not a perfect entrepreneur and some would argue I’m not even a successful entrepreneur since I haven’t had a successful exit yet.

However, the odds on favorite number that people in the startup community like to throw around is that 9 out of every 10 startups fails. So, as I see it, I still have 5 more failures and a win to look forward to (although I think my current startup, WP Engine, is a pretty damn good company that probably is a win).

I can say that in all of my years in this world, I’ve learned a number of things. Many of these things are through trial and error, success and failure, and good old A/B testing.

Today I’m beginning a series (revisiting an old theme from years ago when Steve Fisher wrote the “Venture Files” track on this blog – before I simplified to a single channel site that is updated far less often than it was then) providing some “rules”, as I see them.

As of now, I have six rules to share from my experiences. That may increase over time, but they are slotted and ready to go.

Focus Your Efforts

As an entrepreneur, the carrot on the stick is to provide the best damn {product} that {your target audience} has ever seen. I’ll focus on web tech startups since that’s what I know best, but the principle can cross easily into other industries as well.

Inevitably, being the best damn {product} that your {target audience} has ever seen, involves taking an already existing idea and improving on it. It’s always nice when you can do something new and innovative, but most companies aren’t and maybe shouldn’t be. It’s hard to do something completely new. One quick peruse through Angellist will show you scores of companies who are pitching their products as the {blank} for {blank}.

Examples:

  • Netflix for Digital Children’s Books
  • Twitter for images
  • Meetup for Professional Events
  • eBay for College Tutoring

While I go into manic twitching mode when I see pitches like this, I have to hand the entrepreneurs and startups credit in that they are able to clearly identify exactly what they are building and why it’s important. Sure, they have to leverage some other known entity to get their point across, but their idea is concise and communicable.

Don’t be Google

To leverage a known entity for the sake of this post, Google is a poster child for leveraging someone else idea in the entirely wrong way. Tell me what all of these products have in common:

  • Google+
  • Google Buzz
  • OpenSocial
  • Orkut

That’s right. Every single one of these products were attempts to be the entirety of something else – to take it to their biggest competition in the space. Google+ is a direct swipe at both Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. Google Buzz was a direct assault on Twitter. OpenSocial existed to provide a social networking framework and was a play to undermine Facebook. Orkut took a swipe at Friendster, both of which are essentially dead today.

In every one of these cases, Google decided to “go big or go home” and ended up going home. The most recent, Google+, is still trying to get some traction but everyone seems to be sitting back and saying, “I’ve got social network exhaustion” and don’t see the big value in Google+ over existing products that do the same thing.

The better approach, if you want to assault Facebook, is a limited, targeted, precision-strike on a single feature and knock it out of the park. Twitter already has the status update. Don’t go there. The concept of +1, is already being done by Facebook with the “Like”. In other ways, Tweetmeme has been doing the same thing by enabling users to share what they like (who’s really gonna share what they don’t like… even if they don’t literally “like” it because it may be controversial, it’s compelling enough for users to share… which is the essence of a “Like” or a “+1″?).

But perhaps Google could really target photo sharing and tagging. Picasa is already there. Make it challenge Facebook’s photo albums and tagging. No one has done social event planning very well. Even Twtvite and Eventbrite are just for event planning, but don’t do social very well.

You Have Finite Resources

As an entrepreneur, you have limited resources. The last thing you need to be doing is getting “squirrel eye” and being distracted by every cool feature you could make. Does it fit within your vision? Does it help extend the main reason for building the product? (A good example of this is Foursquare building an Explore Tab… it extends their business product vision).

Especially at the beginning, you don’t have a lot of resources. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Stay targeted and laser-focused on doing one thing and one thing well. As your company grows, you can start exploring complementary features and products. You just can’t be everything all at once.

Next time, I’ll expound on this concept by talking about competition and collaboration. You’ll want to come back. If you’re not already subscribe to this blog, do so now. Also, follow me on Twitter where I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship, WordPress and a healthy dose of sports on the weekend.

Digital Music is Dead, Long Live Digital Music: The Case for Spotify

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Back in the 1990s, there was Napster. I mean, the original Napster not the shadow of a brand that is part of the Best Buy electronics offering.

Napster effectively eliminated optical media by making people realize that the digital format was the only long-term, effective, space-saving way of having music that was portable.

Sure there were MP3s before Napster, and yes, some people had decent libraries of music that they carried around on their portable MP3 players. But Napster made it mainstream by making it easy for anyone to find any music they wanted and download it.

It was illegal and rightly so. There was no way to monetize the music underground economy and intellectual property belongs to someone. So Napster got sued. A lot.

Someone along the way suggested that perhaps a more amenable for Napster to provide digital media to fans and give the record labels a reach around at the same time was the unlimited music for $9.99/mo. Napster balked saying no one would pay that kind of subscription fee.

The lawsuits became so much that the music service had to shut its doors. In an attempt to resurrect themselves just a year or two later, they finally adopted the music subscription model but it was too little too late.

Other music subscriptions came along such as Rhapsody but never gained any kind of real market share. Rhapsody is still open and charges a monthly fee but it just never gained the traction needed.

Spotify Arrives!

In 2008, a new music service, Spotify, launched in Europe. The model was of the subscription type where consumers could pay a monthly fee for the ability to stream any music in their catalog.

The service gained huge popularity in Europe while consumers in the United States clamored for access. Month after month, year after year, the rumors surfaced that Spotify was preparing their U.S. launch and it never came… until last week.

In the meantime, consumers have been inundated with cloud-based web apps. They use Gmail from the web, Facebook for interactions with friends and family, Twitter for persistent real-time communication. Consumers have lost their desire to want to own their own data, and as such, the droning drumbeat of Spotify in Europe as a music subscription service is now arriving in the U.S. past the tipping point of data ownership needs.

That’s a long way of saying – people don’t care if they own their music anymore if they’ve got everything they need in a music service that doesn’t provide ownership.

The Case for Physical and Owned Digital Media

Through the years, I’ve always been a proponent of having my music in a digital format as opposed to a streaming service. I’d rather buy the album on iTunes or Amazon MP3 and know I have it than just stream it from somewhere.

I’ve wanted to play music on demand and not have to rely on a faux-radio service like Pandora to get it done. I like Pandora. I pay for Pandora. But I can’t listen to the songs I want to on demand as part of their licensing agreement with the labels.

I like having dick-measuring competitions about how big my music library is. The bigger it is, the better I am. I must be a more serious music lover. Or so I’ve felt.

With the ownership model, I could take my music everywhere. Hell, even cars have iPod jacks in them so that 50GB library can be taken on the road. I could go for a run and listen to an assortment of playlists for just such an occasion or I could have my library with me for when I need to drum up an impromptu karaoke song and can’t remember how the song starts.

I thought.

In fact, I thought until last week when Spotify launched in the United States. Now… I don’t care about my digital music library. Every argument for it has been shattered into a million small (yet suitably sharp and jagged and “hope you’re wearing sandals so you don’t cut your feet”) pieces.

Spotify is the Music Messiah

At one point, I thought it was important to take my music with me wherever I go. I still do. Spotify has apps for every major mobile device (and if you don’t have a mobile strategy in anything, you lose) and they all tightly integrate with the web service and related desktop apps for both Windows and Mac. Everything is synced. And you can listen to music offline!

At some point I was very concerned about how big my music library was. I feared a catastrophic data loss that would wipe out my years of music collection, purchasing and playlist assembly. Of course, there were backups but that took forever over a network or to an external hard drive.

Spotify solves this by integrating with all your DRM-free music on iTunes or other music player, importing them, making them available in the cloud or offline. It also eliminates the need to have music library. Who needs a music library when every major label is signed on to provide their catalog to the service. I have the entire music world as my music library. My dick, by definition, is therefore bigger.

But the real killer in Spotify is the ingenious social aspect. Sure, you can have a lot of music. Sure, you can have playlists. Sure, you can have subscription models. Sure, you can have mobile availability.

Spotify put the biggest teenage-era “I love you” method in digital format by allowing the mix tape to be replaced by playlists… that are sharable with someone, some service or the world.

Queue up your Bieber-esque bee-bop feel good technosailor dance-esque songlists… the mix tape has gone digital!

It’s the End of the World as We Know It… And I Feel Fine

Spotify will undoubtedly continue to evolve. Launching in the United States gives them a much larger audience to tap into for feedback and expectations. I would like to see the social integration tighter and more obvious, but all in good time.

Rarely does a game changer come along. A lot of people think they have the game changing app… but it never happens. This is, in fact, the revolution that we’ve been waiting for. I no longer even think about my iTunes library, Amazon MP3 purchasing or other digital media. Everything I need is right there in my dick-sized music library.

Photo by Cerebro Humano