The other day, I was talking to a colleague about the debate within OpenStack about whether to chase Amazon's AWS (what another colleague called the "failed Eucalyptus strategy") or forge its own path. It reminded me of an idea that was given to me years ago. I can't take credit for the idea, but I can't remember who I got it from so I'll do my best to represent it visually myself. Consider the following image.
Let's say your competitor is driving toward a Seattle feature set - coffee, grunge, rain. You have a slightly different vision, or perhaps just a different execution, that leads toward more of an LA feature set - fewer evergreens, more palm trees. If you measure yourself by progress toward your opponent's goals (the dotted line), you're going to lose. That's true even if you actually make better progress toward your goals. You're just playing one game and expecting to win another. That might seem like an obviously stupid thing to do, but an amazing number of companies and projects end up doing just that. I'll let someone with more of a stake in the OpenStack debate decide whether that applies to them. Now, consider a slightly different picture.
Here, we've drawn a second line to compare our competitor's progress against our yardstick. Quite predictably, now they're the ones who are behind. Isn't that so much better? If you're building a different product, you need to communicate why you're aiming at the right target and shift the debate to who's hitting it. In other words, change the axis.
I don't mean to say that copying someone else's feature set is always a mistake. If you think you can execute on their vision better than they can, that's great. Bigger companies do this to smaller companies all the time. At Revivio, we weren't afraid of other small competitors. We were afraid of some big company like EMC getting serious about what we were doing, then beating us with sheer weight of numbers and marketing muscle. Occasionally things even go the other way, when a smaller team takes advantage of agility and new technology to out-execute a larger legacy-bound competitor. The real point is not that one strategy's better, but that you can't mix them. You can't send execution in one direction and messaging in another. You have to pick one, and stick to it, or else you'll always be perceived as falling short.