What ode is attempting to do is pretty new, in the education sector at any rate. When you are trying to do something never attempted before you are keenly aware that you are unlikely to be the only person thinking in that manner.

There are almost certainly business people out there cleverer, better funded, more smartly dressed and considerably more successful with women than you’ll ever be. At least that’s how it feels when one company after another announces it’s involvement in this space.

But the reality is you shouldn’t fear the competition. You need to flip that thinking on it’s head and approach it from a completely different angle. And here’s why.

Like any business we keep an eye on what our “competitors” are doing – what new features have they added? What content have they got? What markets are they trying to break into? What are people saying about them? Do our customers use them? And so on.

Feeling a bit sick of riding this paranoia roller coaster I emailed one of my personal heroes, Seth Godin, internet marketing guru extraordinare, and asked for his advice on dealing with this issue. This is what he said:

  1. the enemy isn’t the competition
  2. it’s obscurity
  3. they help you
  4. they legitimize the space
  5. just do a great job

I never really expected a reply (I mean, this is a man that advises Google and been described as “the Ultimate Entrepreneur for the Information Age” by Business Week) so once I’d got over the shock at his quick and valuable response I realised that what he said made enormous sense. I reprint them here with his kind permission.

The enemy isn’t the competition, it’s obscurity

In this new information age customers can move between products and brands faster than at any other time in history. We are digital magpies, flitting around looking for the shiny stuff.

The ability to make quick choices, to gather commentary on services and products and bask in the glow of a million and one paths has never been easier. As consumers we are empowered. As businesses we have to integrate widely and cheaply to earn people’s interest.

It’s not enough anymore to rely on catalogues and pull outs in magazines to sell our message. We have to focus our attention on taking our products to where the people are, and they are splintered across multiple niches now, not just a homogeneous mass silently consuming in front of the TV.

So the message here is that if you are going to focus anywhere, forget what others are doing and concentrate on making people aware of your product. When there are 1000’s of companies all using megaphones to shout at potential customers they understandably tune out and become ultra selective.

Understand where YOUR people hang out, LISTEN to what they have to say, make your product FLEXIBLE enough that you can tailor it to multiple needs. People want to talk about good products more than ever these days. There’s kudos and respect being gathered by consumers out there – make your product worth talking about and the real enemy, obscurity, will fade away.

They help you, they legitimize the space

You may be the only chocolate umbrella company in the world but on a global platform you will likely be a lone voice. This doesn’t make your product awful but it makes it harder to acquire customers. When customers are actively blocking out marketing noise you may remain forever niche without the funds or reach required to take your Chocobrella™ to the next level.

But then you hear that Mars is making a range of confectionery based outdoor apparel – liquorice scarfs, toffee wellington boots and nougat gloves. Initially you will panic, because they are a global corporation with huge marketing budgets, R&D departments and national distribution networks.

But instead what they are doing is raising the awareness of sugar laden weather wear, a wave which you can capitalise on.

Suddenly you have options – people will start searching for similar items on Google, you can work your niche appeal and create bespoke Chocobrellas™ for the more discerning client, lifestyle magazines will start to run comparison articles on this new trend for edible clothing and so on. They have justified your idea and will expand your market for you.

They are not the competition, they are simply a different angle on the same market. Soon others will join in and before you know it you are playing in a million dollar marketplace that previously didn’t exist. This isn’t to say the hard work has finished (see point 1) but your choices suddenly become infinitely more appealing.

Just do a great job

This is the killer point though. Forget what the competition is doing, it’s out of your hands after all, and expend your energies on being the best you can be.

It’s not enough to say your product is good (“Product X will save you time!”), it has to be truly good (customers are spontaneously telling each other Product X saves them time without prompting from you).

People will have passion for it, they will champion it, they will spread the word – the tools are all out there for consumers to do that on massive scale.

I’d add one more point: A competitor might be a collaborator

We are building ode in such a way that it can be broken up into elements, re-packaged or white labeled and inserted into almost any web based technology for any number of reasons.

We can open up ode’s functions and data bit by bit, exclusively and/or publicly to whoever we like. We are in favour of collaborations that are mutually beneficial. In this day and age products that offer openness and willingness to participate will win. So before you label someone a competitor – could they really be a collaborator if a middle ground can be found?

So, Seth did a great job of when answering my email and now I’m telling you about it thus making him look cool which I’m happy to do. Simply by taking a minute to answer my email he has likely won some new fans. Now go and buy Purple Cow, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers and his new book, Meatball Sundae.