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Archive for November 2014

Startups aren’t features (of products or companies)

Checklist with pen isolated on whiteCompanies often pay very close attention to new products from startups as they launched and ponder their impact on their scale, mainstream work. Almost all of the time the competitive risk was deemed minimal. Then one day the impact is significant.

In fact up until such a point most pundits and observers likely said that the startup will get overrun or crushed by a big company in the adjacent space. By this time it is often too late for the incumbent and what was a product challenge now looks like an opportunity to take on the challenges of venture integration.

Why is this dynamic so often repeated? Why does the advantage tilt to startups when it comes to innovation, particularly innovation that disrupts the traditional category definition or go to market of a product?

Much of the challenge described here is rooted in how we discuss technology disruption. Incumbents are faced with “disruption” on a daily basis and from all constituencies. To a great degree as an incumbent the sky is always falling. For every product that truly disrupts there are likely hundreds of products, technologies, marketing campaigns, pricing strategies and more that some were certain would be last straw for an incumbent.

Because statistically new ideas are not likely to disrupt and new companies are likely to fail, incumbents become experts at defining away the challenges and risks posed by a new entrant into the market. Incumbents view the risk of wild swings in strategy or execution as much higher risk than odds of a 1 in 100 chance a new technology upending the near term business. Factoring in any reasonable timeline and the incumbent has every incentive to side with statistics.

To answer “why startups aren’t features” this post looks at the three elements of a startup that competes with an incumbent: incumbent’s reaction, challenges faced by the incumbent, and the advantages of the startup.


When a startup enters a space thought (by the incumbent or conventional wisdom) to be occupied by an incumbent there are series of reasonably predictable reactions that take place. The more entrenched the incumbent the more reasoned and bullet proof the logic appears to be. Remember, most technologies fail to take hold and most startups don’t grow into significant competitors. I’ve personally reacted to this situation as both a startup and as the incumbent.

Doesn’t solve a problem customers have. The first reaction is to just declare a product as not solving a customer problem. This is sort of the ultimate “in the bubble” reaction because the reality is that the incumbent’s existing customers almost certainly don’t have the specific problem being solved because they too live in the very same context. In a world where enterprises were comfortable sending PPT/PDFs over dedicated lines to replicated file servers, web technologies didn’t solve a problem anyone had (this is a real example I experienced in evangelizing web technology).

Just a feature. The first reaction to most startups is that whatever is being done is a feature of an existing product. Perhaps the most famous of all of these was Steve Jobs declaring Dropbox to be “a feature not a product”. Across the spectrum from enterprise to consumer this reaction is routine. Every major communication service, for example, enabled the exchange of photos (AIM, Messenger, MMS, Facebook, and more). Yet, from Instagram to Snapchat some incredibly innovative and valuable startups have been created that to some do nothing more than slight variations in sharing photos. In collaboration, email, app development, storage and more enterprise startups continue to innovate in ways that solve problems in uniquely valuable ways all while incumbents feel like they “already do that”. So while something might be a feature of an existing product, it is almost certainly not a feature exactly like one in an existing product or likely to become one.

Only a month’s work. One asset incumbents have is an existing engineering infrastructure and user experience. So when a new “feature” becomes interesting in the marketplace and discussions turn to “getting something done” the conclusion is usually that the work is about a month. Often this is based on estimate for how much effort the startup put into the work. However, the incumbent has all sorts of constraints that turn that month into many months: globalization, code reviews, security audits, training customer support, developing marketing plans, enterprise customer roadmaps, not to mention all the coordination and scheduling adjustments. On top of all of that, we all know that it is far easier to add a new feature to a new code base than to add something to a large and complex code base. So rarely is something a month’s work in reality.


One thing worth doing as a startup (or as a customer of an incumbent) is considering why the challenges continue even if the incumbent spins up an effort to compete.

Just one feature. If you take at face value that the startup is doing just a feature then it is almost certainly the case that it will be packaged and communicated as such. The feature will get implemented as an add-on, an extra click or checkbox, and communicated to customers as part of the existing materials. In other words, the feature is an objection handler.

Takes a long time to integrate. At the enterprise level, the most critical part of any new feature or innovation is how it integrates with existing efforts. In that regard, the early feedback about the execution will always push for more integration with existing solutions. This will slow down the release of the efforts and tend to pile on more and more engineering work that is outside the domain of what the competitor is doing.

Doesn’t fit with broad value proposition. The other side of “just one feature” is that the go to market execution sees the new feature as somehow conflicting with the existing value proposition. This means that while people seem to be seeing great value in a solution the very existence of the solution runs counter to the core value proposition of the existing products. If you think about all those photo sharing applications, the whole idea was to collect all your photos, enable you to later share them or order prints or mugs. Along comes disappearing photos and that doesn’t fit at all with what you do. At the enterprise level, consider how the enterprise world was all about compliance and containing information while faced with file sharing that is all about beyond the firewall. Faced with reconciling these positioning elements, the incumbent will choose to sell against the startup’s scenario rather than embrace it.


Startups also have some advantages in this dynamic that are readily exploitable. Most of the time when a new idea is taking hold one can see how the startup is maximizing the value they bring along one of these dimensions.

Depth versus breadth. Because the incumbent often views something new as a feature of an existing product, the startup has an opportunity to innovate much more deeply in the space. In any scenario becomes interesting, the flywheel of innovation that comes from usage creates many opportunities to improve the scenario. So while the early days might look like a feature, a startup is committed to the full depth of a scenario and only that scenario. They don’t have any pressure to maintain something that already exists or spend energy elsewhere. In a world where customers want the app to offer a full stack solution or expect a tool to complete the scenario without integrating something else, this turns out to be a huge advantage.

Single release effort. The startup is focused on one line of development. There’s no coordination, no schedules to align, no longer term marketing plans to reconcile and so on. Incumbents will often try to change plans but more often than not the reactions are in whitepapers (for enterprise) or beta releases (for consumer). While it might seem obvious, this is where the clarity, focus, and scale of the startup can be most advantageous.

Clear and recognizable value proposition/identity. The biggest challenge incumbents face when adding a new capability to their product/product line is where to put it so it will get noticed. There’s already enormous surface area in the product, the marketing, and also in the business/pricing. Even the basics of telling customers that you’ve done something new is difficult and calling attention to a specific feature it often ends up as a supporting point on the third pillar. Ironically, those arguing to compete more directly are often faced with internal pressures that amount to “don’t validate the competitor that much”. This means even if the feature exists in the incumbent’s product, it is probably really difficult to know that and equally difficult to find. The startup perspective is that the company comes to stand for the entire end-to-end scenario and over time when customers’ needs turn to that feature or scenario, there is total clarity in where to get the app or service.

Even with all of these challenges, this dynamic continues: initially dismissing startup products, later attempting to build what they do, and in general difficulty in reacting to inherent advantages of a startup. One needs to look long and hard for a story where an incumbent organically competed and won against a startup in a category or feature area.

Secret Weapon

More often than not the new categories of products come about because there is a change in the computing landscape at a fundamental level. This change can be the business model, for example the change to software as a service. It could also be the architecture, such as a move to cloud. There could also be a discontinuity in the core computing platform, such as the switch to graphical interface, the web, or mobile.

There’s a more subtle change which is when an underlying technology change is simply too difficult for incumbents to do in an additive fashion. The best way to think about this is if an incumbent has products in many spaces but a new product arises that contains a little bit of two of the incumbent’s products. In order to effectively compete, the incumbent first must go through a process of deciding which team takes the lead in competing. Then they must address innovator’s dilemma challenges and allocate resources in this new area. Then they must execute both the technology plans and go to market plans. While all of this is happening, the startup unburdened by any of these races ahead creating a more robust and full featured solution.

At first this might seem a bit crazy. As you think about it though, modern software is almost always a combination of widely reused elements: messaging, communicating, editing, rendering, photos, identity, storage, API / customization, payments, markets, and so on. Most new products represent bundles or mash-ups of these ingredients. The secret sauce is the precise choice of elements and of course the execution. Few startups choose to compete head-on with existing products. As we know, the next big thing is not a reimplementation of the current big thing.

The secret weapon in startups competing with large scale incumbents is to create a product that spans the engineering organization, takes a counter-intuitive architectural approach, or lands in the middle of the different elements of a go to market strategy. While it might sound like a master plan to do this on purpose, it is amazing how often entrepreneurs simply see the need for new products as a blending of existing solutions, a revisiting of legacy architectural assumptions, and/or emphasis on different parts of the solution.

—Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

November 17, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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