In the late 90's, a spokesperson for the Coca Cola corporation said, "Our primary competition isn't Pepsi. Our real competition is water, tea, nimbupani and Pepsi... in that order."
While it's a gruesome thought to see water considered competition to the top cola manufacturer, I didn't include the quote to make a commentary on public health or privatization. I did it to remind startups that competition includes all products that solve the same problem, in this case - thirst. When a startup claims they have no competitors, it makes me wonder if there's a need for their product in the first place. You have competitors. Below are a few ways you can find them, research them and then beat them.
It's About Solving A Problem: Whether you are connecting friends online, providing a reference resource or building a better mousetrap, your product is one approach to a problem and you need to find others who claim to take on the same challenge. Your obvious competitors are those with similar products but your less obvious ones are those with vastly different products who still compete for market's attention.
Know Your Competitors: Think about your problem statement and the problem-related keywords and categories that drive users to your site. Now take those same keywords, type them into your favorite search engine and look at who dominates those pages. This is a good indicator of your competition. You can also search your keywords and categories through sites like KillerStartups, YouNoodle and LinkedIn to determine others in your space. Conversation tracking services like Echo and UberVu also allow you to track your perceived direct competitors through public conversations, blog posts and traditional media sources.
Reach Out Early and Make A Better Case: Often when ReadWriteWeb writes an article about a company, we get a pitch about a similar product the next day. Unless you prove that your product solves the problem much better than the last guy, we are not going to write about you. Similarly, investors don't want to hear a pitch about an exact replica of a product they've already funded. It is your job to reach out to stakeholders early, explain the problem, give an accurate description of the competitive environment, and then blow our minds. You need to prove that you are the best solution to the problem bar none.
Photo Credit: Dan Bennett