Competition · Etiquette

What to do when competition directly interferes with your company?

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

November 13th, 2014

I had something happen today, I want to share it and hear how others would have reacted.

We had our products in a fancy event showcase with a group of designers and companies. Upon arrival our most popular item was not at the event and not in the showcase. When asked what happened, the event runners looked nervous and asked each other, then said, it wasn't working so we just didn't put in the showcase. I asked another person. After a bit of running around, they brought out a head honcho that told me sometimes things are not displayed or it doesn't work out at the last minute.

Normally, I would believe this. It does happen. But, these event people flew out to meet us specifically to be able to have this product in their showcase. So, it's pretty hard to believe. I was upset, but got over it.

I asked to have our product brought up, they said after the showcase time because there was no model for the product. After a fourth person gave me the same deal, I realized, I was not going to get my product in the showcase.

It was obvious another company did not want our piece to show. They are bigger and more popular with more product than us with 10x the amount of press. We are friendly to one another. I like to be nice to my competitors, even praise their work, so it was a bit surprising. We had other products, so I went back to work selling and explaining.

I've never been in this situation before. What I want to know if there are better tactics to handle this kind of situation? Was there a way to get the product on display without making enemies or a big ugly stink?

As I write this, I want to forget about it. However, if there is something to learn here - I'd really like to learn it so I do better next time.

David Antila Managing Partner, Product Strategy Partners

November 13th, 2014

Hi Alison,

Aside from the usual caveats of 'get it in writing' and 'keep going until you get what you've got coming' sometimes you do get bested by the competition -- or worse, you beat yourself by not being prepared.

Over the years I've never been a part of or witnessed an event that had 100% flawless execution, with the possible exception of Apple's 1st iPhone launch event.

I suggest that instead of forgetting about it, spend some time on a post-mortem to really look at whether or not you could have prevented what happened. Use whatever model you're familiar with -- 5 Why Analysis, Ishikawa Diagrams, etc., As your team discovers one (or several) points of failure (product function, contract/legal, disaster recovery, etc.) look carefully at what you could have done to mitigate those issues. Forget the blame game; focus on improving your future results.

For example, if we are to believe that "it didn't work!", turn that around to "what if it doesn't work?" and perhaps (just spitballing here) everyone wears the item under their gala wear and carries an extra in their purse/messenger bag, and someone 'bodyguards' the shirt so no one causes it not to work? No staff? Hello TaskRabbit. Egads, no model? Perish forfend! (sound of buttons cascading to floor) Here's your model right here, pal! :-) End up with a "5 What If" chart to convince yourself that you can recover from any or many failure points.

Anyway, you get the idea. You're not causing a stink, you're giving show runners, competitors and would-be saboteurs more reasons to keep their agreements than they can overcome.

Public spectacles can go spectacularly wrong -- take it from a guy who took a brand new demo laptop (without an asset tag) into the Pentagon for a meeting and couldn't leave the building with a laptop I couldn't prove was mine. And I didn't have a backup machine. Yep, had to call the COO who vouched for me and verified the serial number and purchase order. Yep, I was late to my next meeting and topped the day off by missing my plane home. Hooah!


Rob G

November 14th, 2014

Allison; taking the high road like you did usually wins in the end, but i'm betting you and your team will have your radar tuned at all future events.  The silver lining, hopefully, is that it's a learning moment early in the company's hopefully long life.  The old adage "business is war" is still true.  To me that means me and my team have to keep our strategic hats on 24/7.  that runs the gamut from knowing your competition inside and out (to excruciating detail) to contingency and disaster planning.  That takes a ton of band-width and as a startup you have 2 tons on your plate, but it pays off especially at important events and customer interactions.  I think 'strategic thinking' is an attitude you can bake into company culture.  Relationships matter - really matter.  Maybe part of planning for your next trade event (i'm still not clear on exactly the format of your event) includes a specific task for one of your team members to work on knowing the event manages (names, titles, roles, contact information, and escalation process, etc.).  One example of a standard 'sales 101' check-point that would have helped here is always, always, always establish some sort of rapport up the chain of command before things go south.  In your example this means you (as CEO) establishing some sort of rapport with the "head honcho" before the event and someone on your team doing the same with the 'worker bees'.  If crunch time never materializes, no problem.  If it does, then you already have his/her contact info and a 'relationship' and can elicit their help before things go sideways. If your competitor has already done this and you have not then you are starting out with one foot in the hole.  If not then you have the advantage.  Knock em dead on the next one! 

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

November 14th, 2014

Yes. That's pretty much how I felt. I like the way you put it.

Looking back, there was little I could afford to do in the situation as we're totally bootstrapped all the way. One time when it happened before I grabbed a stranger to wear the product, at SXSW, I wore it myself.  

I did have a teammate who was supposed to come with me to wear the product, but they didn't make it. Had he been able to come, for sure I would have put it on him. For sure! 

The only thing I can do is keep going, because I've realized quickly that those with cash can TRY to crush you and your spirit. We can always plan for when we do have funding. 

I wanted to share. Maybe people had similar stories and were able to get around it in a way I hadn't thought about.