Startup Competition: Why You Should Ignore It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Rework" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you feel like you’re always on the defense, trying to improve your product to overthrow your competition? How can you stop getting bogged down by what your competitors are doing?

Investigating what your competitors are doing can be time-consuming and distracting. According to David Hansson and Jason Fried, the founders of software company 37signals, you will be better off ignoring your competition altogether, especially in the startup phase.

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of ignoring startup competition.

The Case for Minding Your Own Business

What your competition does is out of your control, but what your company does is within your control, so that’s where you should focus your energy. You won’t achieve success by copying what somebody else is doing—in fact, you might succeed by doing exactly the opposite. 

Principle 1: Don’t Copy Existing Products

Copying may seem like a great shortcut to building a business, but it’s bad policy. When you create a knockoff product or write a book that reads much like the latest bestseller, you don’t get to experience the many-layered process of invention. You won’t understand why a product looks the way it does or functions the way it does. Worst of all, you’ll put your company in the backseat instead of in the driver’s seat: You’ve made your company a follower, not a leader. 

Principle 2: Make Your Product Unique to You

To stand out from the crowd, inject some of your individual passions or obsessions into your product. Suddenly you’re fresh and original, and the competition won’t be able to copy you. 

Model for success: The shoe retailer Zappo’s stands out over other shoe retailers because of its over-the-top customer service, the passion project of its founder. All Zappo’s employees take a turn in the call center: New hires for any department start by spending four weeks answering customer calls. And they’re trained to speak at length with callers, not just follow a canned script.

Principle 3: Position Yourself as Your Competition’s Opposite

Instead of copying someone else’s product, position yourself as the antithesis of their product. Consumers relish taking sides in a product war, and if they dislike your competitor, they’ll automatically side with you. 

Models for success: The car company Audi positions itself as the young, fresh alternative to old-school luxury cars like Mercedes and Rolls Royce. Dunkin’ Donuts positions itself as the anti-Starbucks with advertising that pokes fun at Starbucks’ pretentiousness.

Principle 4: Make Your Product Simpler Than the Competition’s 

Do you get bogged down over your competitors’ products? As a startup, competition is best to be left alone altogether. Instead, take the opposite approach—instead of adding features to your product, try subtracting features. Simplifying your product may be the right move to make you stand out. There’s plenty of market share for small, simple, and basic products—and you can brag about the fact that your invention does “less.” 

Model for success: Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, bicycle brands started making bikes that had more gears—first 10 speeds, then 21 speeds—plus high-tech suspension systems and super lightweight frames. But soon after 2000, that shifted. Suddenly the hottest bikes on the market were “beach cruisers”—heavy, single-speed bikes that looked straight out of the 1950s. People were happy to pedal along on the simplest machine with two wheels. 

Startup Competition: Why You Should Ignore It

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson's "Rework" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Rework summary :

  • Why the old-school process of starting a business doesn't work anymore
  • Why you should completely ignore your business competition
  • How to hire employees and help them thrive

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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