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21 February 2012

Who are your competitors?

By Andrew Clifford

You will not succeed until you know who your competitors are.

We starting developing tools and materials for assessing IT systems because we saw value in it and did not see other people doing it. That might sound like a great strategy, but there is a problem.

If you can not find other people doing what you are trying to do, then either there is no market for it, or there is a market but you are ignorant of it. Either way, you are going to have an uphill battle to sell your products. You need to find your competitors to succeed.

We found that there was no existing market for our assessments. As one prospect put it, "It's not our priority right now." People could understand the value proposition, but did not feel compelled to act. We tried to make the tool general purpose, but it was hard to apply to areas other than assessing IT systems.

Since then, we have moved on. We are better at combining our IT system assessments with services that people do recognise, such as information security or service management. We redeveloped our software so that it can cope with any type of survey, assessment, analysis or consultancy engagement.

This gives us lots of potential competitors. We can apply our ideas to any IT-related service or consultancy. The tool overlaps with a great variety of tools: survey tools; governance, risk and control tools, electronic forms, content management systems, e-learning and assessment software, and so on. But this gives us another problem. Are we wandering into the territory of established products against which we can not hope to compete?

The more I think about it, the less I worry.

Our core competence is combining IT system assessments with other types of IT work. Although there are competitors for some standard assessments, there is room in the market for more specialist or customised services.

Our tool is very strong. We can deliver solutions in a fraction of the time of a traditional application development tool, and we can deliver professional, multiuser, online systems that tools like Excel can not deliver. There is a niche for us just as tool provider.

The overlap with other tools is a by-product of our versatility. You can't use your staff appraisal system to write and host a website; the fact that our system can do both doesn't make it a me-too product.

Finally, the businesses I worry about are not our competitors. They are subject matter experts with market presence. They could just as well be customers, basing their specialist tools and services on our Advisor platform.

We have to keep our nerve. We are winning business and are very busy. We should use this success to consolidate our core proposition and invest in our software.

Our competitors are not other software companies with specialist assessment tools. They help us understand where the market is, and may become our customers. Our competitors are labour-intensive manual assessments and analyses, and under-designed solutions in Excel, which is a vast market over which we have compelling competitive advantages. Now that we know our competitors, we can succeed.

Next: Buy or build? Neither!

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