When the startup company Onvia.com went public the CEO, Glenn Ballman, in an interview on CNBCs SquawkBox was asked who were his competitors? Without missing a beat he said "we have no competitors", "we are alone in this market space." This is nonsense. All companies have competitors. What made this really interesting was that as he was speaking, the staff at SquawkBox put up a graphic listing four competitors, including bizbuyer.com and buy.com.
Ive heard this kind of limited thinking before from people in technology companies. For example, once while speaking to Hughes Space and Communications executives about their DirectTV service I heard them admit that while they had competition, it was extraordinarily limited (to EchoStar). Really? What about cable and good old antennas?
What causes this type of thinking? For one, entrepreneurs and managers of technology companies tend to think at a feature level. If another companys product doesnt have a similar feature set, then theyre not competitors. This, I believe, is what the CEO of Onvia.com had in mind. I call this "terrestrial" thinking because its very grounded. But we know that trees (which are very terrestrial) and forests (which are more "conceptual") are quite different. As I explain later, more conceptual thinking leads to seeing competition more clearly.
Also, technology and web businesses have been told to differentiate their products and to find a market "niche" (or in todays parlance, a "market space"). But the belief seems to be that if you find a market space thats vacant, then you have no competition.
Or if the way a business delivers a service is unique, as the executives who promoted the Chunnel (the tunnel between England and France) believed, then again there are no competitors (I guess they forgot about ferries and planes). The same goes for companies who view themselves narrowly, such as the early "information appliance software platform" companies (e.g., Diba, subsequently acquired by Sun).
Many start-ups probably believe they have no competitors because such a belief keeps the troops fired-up on getting that so-called first mover advantage. But thats not what management says in public. Farzad Dibachi of Diba said as much in the article linked above. The Venture capitalists and the business press dont like the kind of talk that suggests a start-up has no competition. El Dorado Ventures even publishes this admonition on its website.