Competition Blind Spots


Months ago I somehow came across the webpage in the image above while researching publishing tools. After reading the person’s feature request—to be able to publish to blogs from Microsoft Word—I remember thinking something along the lines of, “Hilarious. The world of digital publishing has advanced so far that the idea of delivering content through Microsoft Word feels like the stone age.”

After uncovering the image again recently and reflecting, I realized I was looking at history with a very short view. Word’s initial release was in 19831, two years before I was born. It came into wide use with the release of Microsoft Office, which was released in 19902. I was ridiculing the ‘antiquity’ of a technology the same age as me. What’s more, Office was a monumental force in the world of computing. Here are a few excerpts from Thomas Friedman’s famous book The World is Flat3.

The first version of the Windows operating system launched in 1985, and the breakthrough version that made IBM PCs much more user-friendly—Windows 3.0—shipped on May 22, 1990, only six months after the [Berlin] wall went down.

It is impossible to exaggerate how important this was to the flattening of the world. The rise of the Windows-enabled PC, combined with the fall of the Wall, set in motion the whole flattening process. To be sure, mean dn women have long been authoring their own content, beginning with drawings on cave walls up through Gutenberg and the typewriter. But the Windows-enabled PCs and Apples made it possible for individuals to author their own content right from their desktops in digital form. And those last three words are critical. Because people could author their own content in digital form—in the form of computer bits and bytes—they could manipulate it on computer screens in ways that made individuals so much more productive. And with the steady advances in telecommunications, they would soon be able to disseminate their own digital content in so many new ways to so many more people. Think of what one person can do with pen and paper. Think of what one person can do with a typewriter. And then think of what one person can now do with a PC. (p.55)

What was it that stimulated investors to believe that demand for Internet usage and Internet-related products would be infinite? The short answer is digitization. Once the PC-Windows revolution demonstrated to everyone the value of being able to digitize information and manipulate it on computers and word processors, and once the browser brought the internet alive and made Web pages sing and dance and display, everyone wanted everything digitized as much as possible so they could send it to someone else down the Internet pipes. (p. 69-70)

Finding myself mocking an industry-shifting technology only two-and-half decades from its birth gave me cause to pause and reflect on how I view technology and the mind-bending speed at which it is changing the world.

Competition and blind spots

Aside from a myopic view history, thinking back on my initial reaction also helped me realize that my view of things creates blind spots, which can often affect how I perceive competition in business.

I’ve composed this article using two applications: Desk4 and Evernote5. I can publish directly from Desk to WordPress and just installed a plugin that will automatically push the article from WordPress to Medium. Still, in my extensive travels for business and interaction with companies of all types and sizes, the most common software used for word processing is Microsoft Word. In fact, for a long time, WordPress featured a button in their text editing tool that allowed users to “Paste from Word,” minimizing common formatting issues. In an early 2014 update to WordPress, their development team went a step further and made the feature automated, removing the need for a button and automatically addressing formatting issues for users pasting from Word. The author of the article I referenced about the change seems to have had the same feelings I did about Word6:

Until I saw the question on Reddit, indicating that the button had gone missing, I had no idea that anyone still used this feature.

In July of 2013, WordPress powered 18.9% of the entire web7.

Modern text editing and document sharing with tools like Google Docs have certainly begun to disrupt word processing, but there is still a long way to go. The road will be much longer for more complicated tools like Excel, which is the dominant tool for any type of spreadsheet work. In a 2013 memo8 to his entire company, Stuart Butterfield, founder of the now monumentally-valued chat application Slack, noted that “the best — maybe the only? — real, direct measure of ‘innovation’ is change in human behavior.” He goes on to say that the company isn’t competing against other chat applications. Instead, they are selling “organizational transformation.” He goes on to say:

It is almost inevitable that centralized internal communication systems will gradually replace email for most organizations over the next 10-20 years and we should do what we can to accelerate the trend and “own it”. We are at the beginning of a transition. We have an opportunity to both define the category and push hard for the whole market’s growth.

Looking at an advanced, modern communication tool like Slack, the temptation is to dismiss email as outdated (or quickly becoming outdated). While there is some technological truth to the process of email being outmoded, Butterfield’s observation about behavior holds true: email is still the dominant digital communication tool. Instead of dismissing it, he is thinking decades forward and recognizes that email—not other modern chat programs—is a formidable competitor in the market for organizational transformation.

This concept extends beyond technology. One of the best examples is Clayton Christensen’s work with a restaurant chain that wanted to sell more milkshakes9:

In his MBA course, Christensen shares the story of a fast-food restaurant chain that wanted to improve its milkshake sales. The company started by segmenting its market both by product (milkshakes) and by demographics (a marketer’s profile of a typical milkshake drinker). Next, the marketing department asked people who fit the demographic to list the characteristics of an ideal milkshake (thick, thin, chunky, smooth, fruity, chocolaty, etc.). The would-be customers answered as honestly as they could, and the company responded to the feedback. But alas, milkshake sales did not improve.

The milkshake was hired in lieu of a bagel or doughnut because it was relatively tidy and appetite-quenching, and because trying to suck a thick liquid through a thin straw gave customers something to do with their boring commute.

In other words, your competition is whoever or whatever else your customer is currently using or considering as a solution—even if your solution makes those things seem antiquated.

In summary

When we think things like, “this is a fundamentally different product” or “we’re solving this problem in a completely unique way,” we might be technically correct, but we might also be creating blind spots that keep us from seeing our competition for what it really is.

1. You can read more about the history of Microsoft Word on Wikipedia.2. You can read more about the history of Microsoft Office on Wikipedia.3. You can read more about Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, on his website.4. You can read more about the publishing app Desk on their official website.5. You can read more about Evernote, an app that’s hard to define in one sentence, on their website.6. You can read the article about WordPress’ updates to the “Paste from Word” feature on WordPress Tavern.7. You can watch WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg talk about WordPress and its accomplishments, including web traffic, on The Next Web.8. You can read Stuart Butterfield’s entire 2013 memo to Tiny Speck (Slack) on Medium.9. You can read more about Clayton Christensen’s “milkshake marketing” on the Harvard Business School’s website.

Also published on Medium.

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