Meme vs Meme

I keep hearing people say something like:

Before you start building your app, you have to check out your competition and make sure that you design your app to suit.

This is not referring to apps made for a client, where commonly because of the constraints of the client, the app is highly specified up front.

Its referring to developers who are putting their own apps on the Appstore.

Enter the challengers:
In the blue corner is the “lean startup” and in the red corner is the “competition analysis”.

The lean methodology declares that you know nothing really about a customer, or even who your customers are until you throw something at them and you start gathering data about their reactions. From this feedback you adjust the product.

The competition analysis meme is a philosophy where you spend time analysing the competition and the market before starting the app. This philosophy has been around for a long time, and was made famous by Michael Porter . In the context of iOS apps this meme appears in “The Business of iPhone and iPad Development” Wooldridge &Schneider – Apress, and was advocated rather strongly by Erica Sadun and Scotty recently on developer tv.

Happily for this blog post these ideas are very opposing. The emotion rides even higher because the proponents of each idea are quite dogmatic in their proposals.

Some personal data points:

1. The first tech startup that I was involved in didn’t start gathering steam until we pivoted several times.

2. I (with two colleges) interviewed 20 biotech startups a few years ago, and even with the biotech startups, who you would expect would be strongly constrained by the dictates of their IP, they never stuck to their initial competitive differentiation.

3. I once asked a friend of mine who started an alternative energy company – “So what aspects of your strategy, your competitive differentiation have remained the same – and what changed?” He said – “It all changed – nothing is the same, and its always that way with any startup – in my opinion.” (He was the COO Asian division of the UK firm Linklaters – and was involved in a lot of entrepreneurial activities).

4. If it was so easy to do a competitive analysis, why is that big Pharma end up filling their product pipeline with products from biotech companies?

5. When i think of my own development process (which admittedly might be driven more by impatience than logic), I always try something out first, with only the vague notion of what the competitive differentiation is, and then iterate.

What i think is happening here is that the product creator has no deep understanding about the following issues :

  • which customers are well served, which not,
  • the domain of the product they are building,
  • what a potential customer might really want,
  • what they can deliver given budget and time constraints (and the changing of those constraints over time),
  • what will change in the competitive landscape during the process of app construction, and,
  • how the creators themselves changes during the process


  • In order to get that data the developer has to try something, put their foot in the water.

    Without data gained by trying to build a product, you know nothing of consequence, and trying to build a product with a certain differentiation based on no real data is most likely doomed to failure.

    Probably what happens in real life is that engineers recognise that their initial competitive analysis – their differentiation strategy – was in fact totally wrong, but in order to save face they claim only a few “adjustments” were made.

    So I think the lean meme is a better philosophy to follow. I do think that the lean meme has some implementation issues when it comes to iOS apps – iOS apps are not websites – and its not a given that thousands of people will happily experiment and re-experiemnt with your app until you get it working well.

    But the development process itself – remaining agile/flexible enough to change radically the end target – is important, I believe.

    I’ve learnt to say to myself:

    I’m not sure how this product will differentiate itself, but if i spend enough time thinking about it, re-evaluating the competitive environment and the 6 issues above, during the process of development, then an appropriate differentiation will occur

    I also think you have to be in that development process a while until all the great ideas come.

    To be clear I’m not saying don’t do a competitive analysis – what I am saying is that it is a mistake to do this upfront, to depend on it, and base anything of consequence on it.

    As mentioned above – the case where you are building a product for someone else is a different issue – agency issues, budget issues, time issues, domain knowledge issues (they will be the experts) will dictate much more of a big design upfront philosophy. The competitive differentiator will be been nailed down, encased in concrete and raised upon a holly dais to be forever venerated.

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