Startup Execution

The Art of War

Every startup targeting a large market opportunity will face competition. When competitors are present, every sales opportunity becomes a battle. Founders must prepare their war strategy in order to be well-positioned for victory when the time for hand-to-hand combat arrives. Sadly, I’ve seen countless companies fail to prepare their teams to compete, resulting in weak sales. Founders need to ensure they install a framework that allows them to compete strong.

Lessons from Sun Tzu

Every business would benefit from adopting the wisdom from a 2,500-year-old book: The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. One principle from this ancient tome is the importance of knowing both yourself and your enemy, as summarized below.

Effective competitive frameworks must include a thorough understanding of yourself and the competition. Some teams charge blindly into a competitive sale without any preparation. I’ve seen many teams begin preparations for a sales presentation while sitting in the lobby waiting for the customer to escort them to the meeting room. Needless to say, in competitive situations, these meetings rarely deliver the impact that they could or should. Opportunities progress slowly through the sales pipeline, if they move forward at all.

Other more seasoned sales teams learn that multiple vendors will compete for the opportunity and only prepare by highlighting their own product’s strengths. They know their product well, but fail to really understand the competition and how they will attack. This leaves sales teams scrambling when the competition effectively highlights their own strengths or points out your weaknesses — resulting in a loss of confidence, credibility, and sales momentum. This approach is similar to a sports team that competes by only emphasizing their offense and ignoring their defense. As a long-time San Diego Chargers fan (yes, I know the Chargers moved to Los Angeles), I celebrated the vaunted “Air Coryell” offense that led the league in passing yards an NFL record 6 consecutive years from 1978 to 1983. Sadly, the Chargers’ defense also surrendered the most passing yards in 1981 and 1982. The team could easily score 35-40 points in a game, but their opponent often did the same. In the documentary “America’s Game: The Missing Rings”, the 1981 Chargers received the dubious distinction of being one of the five greatest NFL teams to never win the Super Bowl.

Companies that build a competitive infrastructure that highlights their differentiators and provides prepared responses to their competitor’s lines of attack enjoy the best chances of success.

Build a Solid Competitive Framework

Just as it’s key to structure your product’s value into features, advantages, and benefits, it is important to structure your competitive content. I usually classify competitive content into three categories: objective, subjective, and speculative, as depicted below.

Objective content is customer viewable, which means it needs to be based on fact or broadly accepted opinions. It needs to be unbiased in order to pass the credibility test. Subjective content is targeted at your trusted partner network and may be shared with the end customer in select instances. Because the subjective content may be disputed by an extreme skeptic, it should be built on conservative, plausible assumptions in order to be defensible. Speculative content is based on experienced opinions and logical projections. However, because the core content is often anecdotal or non-public, it is subject to claims of bias. As such, it should be only be delivered in very carefully crafted messages. Subtle messages that shine a light on a certain topic or that encourage the customer to explore a subject more deeply may be appropriate to convey the point. Simple examples of objective, subjective, and speculative messages are captured below.

The Audience Matters

Another key consideration is the target audience for your competitive claims. I encourage product managers to create bullet-point messages for executives, mid-level managers and architects, as well as staff engineers. Similar to the functionality available in Google Earth, the bullet points should differ only in the level of detail, providing zoomed-out perspectives for senior management and zoomed-in details for front-line staff. I’ve created a sample competitive 3×3 battle chart to illustrate how each category of competitive content intersects with the target audience to create a specific message.

Snacks, Entrees, and Banquets

Finally, competitive content should be packaged and delivered in three different formats:

  1. Short bullet-point summaries (such as the sample above) that can be quickly leveraged by a sales team in as little as 10 minutes.
  2. Overview presentations that provide reasonable detail behind the summary claims that a pre-sales engineer can review in 45-60 minutes. Without this level of detail, your sales teams will not have the confidence to be credible and will likely crumble when challenged with an opposing viewpoint.
  3. A library of detailed evidence supporting each individual claim. Each library item may take 10-15 minutes to digest. In some cases, the customer struggles with accepting the competitive messages you tell them. In such cases, you need to be able to show them the specific detail. In one instance, I claimed that our product could be installed in about two hours, while the main competitor’s product installation took about two weeks. To back up the point, I referenced the competitor’s installation guides. Their installation process had six major steps. Each step had a long checklist of individual tasks. I copied the tasks for each step directly into my internal competitive presentation, giving the sales team hard, actionable data. The first step alone consisted of 41 individual tasks! In another instance that proved quite effective, an engineer created a video of the actual troubleshooting process of a common problem (loss of a network connection). The recording of the terminal session captured all the command line steps required to gather individual pieces of data in order to determine the correct course of action. The video illustrated the difficulty of troubleshooting the multi-layered, distributed solution that was not apparent in the competitor’s high-level product pitch. Both of these examples required a significant investment in order to understand the enemy. But, as Sun Tzu correctly observed, the fact that we knew the enemy very well enabled us to approach every battle without danger.

The Path to Game Day Sunday

Every football fan understands that games are won by creating a strategic game plan and then executing to that plan. Professional football players and coaches prepare and practice for six days and play for just three hours, one day a week. As Sun Tzu asserted, “every battle is won before it is fought”. Set your company up for success by knowing both yourself and your competitors. Invest the time required to learn your most effective offensive plays as well as defensively counter the opponent’s likely lines of attack. Classify your competitive talking points into objective, subjective and speculative categories in order to help your sales team know how hard to push and how to position each message.  By adopting a structured framework for your competitive content, you can avoid reckless street fighting and build effective battle campaigns for your sales force, enabling you to compete strong.


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