Don’t be the best, be the only one

Know your competition but don't copy it

A couple of weeks ago I asked if corporates really want to innovate like startups. One of the obstacles corporates have towards innovating like startups is overcoming their myopic view of competition: me-too-ism.

When setting out to innovate, the vast majority of the time corporates decide they will make the Nth version of an existing product (see Microsoft) with their own branding on it; if they do bring something new to the table it is simply a gimmick.

Startups on the other hand, not all, aim for uniqueness. But there are some corporates, W.L. Gore, Google, Apple, Nike, among others, that defy me-too-ism in favor of doing things their own way.  Take Apple for example, last week the internet and the whole world stopped to see them launch a new iPhone, a payments service and a watch. Oh jolly!

Predictably, blogs and news channels wrote wide ranging articles about the products, while analysts did their thing; analyze: quick to point out that Apple is not really innovative, that it’s just really good at marketing.

Well, my question is: when their products are clearly much better that existing options, who cares!?

Better > best

Many corporates make all types of efforts, usually PR and advertising, to flaunt their not-so-new product or service to create the impression that they are innovators. Many of these products may be adopted, but they are usually categorized as “good enough” by customers; so customers will jump ship if a better alternative exists.

Throughout its history Apple has understood what other corporates have not: The customer doesn’t care is you are innovative, he/she cares if you make his/her life better. Period.

Apple, hits the nail on that.

Time Cook, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, pointed out as much. In the same article a Gizmodo reader is quick to point out that Apple, though it’s releasing new products, isn’t doing anything out of this world:

Is that really the case though? In the interview, Cook takes pains to mention that Apple was never really the “first” in any market—whether it was smartphones, tablets, or now smartwatches and jumbo-size phones. Apple’s products have always been nicely designed, and having hardware and software completely managed in-house has always allowed Apple to do things more efficiently than companies running Android software and off-the-shelf hardware, but I can’t really remember a time when Apple ever did anything wildly, off-the-map different from its competitors.


In recent times, according to “analysts” and bloggers, Google has taken the top innovator mantel from Apple because of the wide scope of industries they are tackling seemingly every month. The truth is, they are both different animals. Driven by different sets of ideas and ideals.

Unlike Google, “analysts” have always bashed Apple for not being first to market with anything. But unlike sports where crossing the finish line first many times means you are the best of the best, in business being first doesn’t mean being best. Apple, as well as other companies, understand that being first to market doesn’t mean you are better. It just means you got the party started!

Interestingly, with all this bashing, analysts and commentators are probably using some Apple product to write and publish their thoughts on the internet. Hmm…

Competition is in how you look at it

But business is about competition, right? It’s a matter of perspective.

As it’s narrated by the media, the problem with business is it places too much focus on superficial competition. In the world of business, those who aim to be the best do so with a myopic perspective; since being the best means beating someone else at the same game. So, if you are an “analyst” who is looking at an industry from a functional point of view, you are missing the whole perspective.

When we look at things and situations so simplistically, we make a huge error in perception; missing what’s right in front of us. You see as both producers and consumers, there is a cognitive bias called functional fixedness that keeps us from innovating. It’s the reason we may not come up with ideas for unconventional uses for a fork; other than just using it to put food in our mouths.

It’s also the reason most people can’t at how one organization differs from another beyond their “functional” and obvious attributes.

I doubt Apple looks at itself as being in the business of building consumer products, if so then it competes with just about everyone. I think that Apple is in the business of experience design, and just so happens to make consumer products.

It’s a perspective that helps Apple outcompete just about everyone in any industry, but chooses to work on things that are really interesting to them. Not what analysts think they should do or what competitors are doing. In that sense, Apple is not a fast follower.

With the above said, I take a much broader view when I think about competition: you compete against anyone who has the ability to raise people’s expectations; no matter what industry or domain they operate in.

Break away from competition

The organizations we remember, and that stand the test of time, didn’t look at themselves as competing with others. Rather, they define themselves by what they stand for and what they bring to the world; a point of view.

With that said, save, highlight, retweet the following statement: Perception separates the innovator from the imitator.

When you take the time to adjust your mental lens and evaluate ideas with a pair of fresh eyes, you will find that radical is in how you look at it. So, just because Apple Pay seems radical or new in the United States doesn’t mean it’s new in Japan; where similar payments systems have existed for a long time.

Again, it’s all in how you look at it, so to look at things differently we must deliberately shift our perspective:

  • Take the time to understand the current narrative of competition by immersing yourself in it;
  • Ask questions;
  • Question assumptions;
  • Reframe to develop your unique point of view.

To break away from the traditional view of competition, for me to win someone else must lose, you have to make choices. Choices in what opportunities you choose to pursue, how you pursue them, who you serve and why. In making those choices, you will force the customer to make a choice between good and great; this is what “idea brands” do.

Every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. Apple does what others cannot: it makes products matter to people because it makes people better off.

What can you do that others cannot? That’s how you lead the pack!

Bottom line: Remember, novelty is a matter of perception; and most of the time new doesn’t equal innovation. We’re so overly obsessed with “disruptive” ideas that we forget that the only thing that matters is people get a better outcome.

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