Tools used in this Recipe
As an entrepreneur you are developing a solution to a problem that hopefully lots of people or companies have. If the problem is shared by enough customers to make it a viable business, you should expect not to be the only person trying to solve it. Contrary to widely-held belief, the presence of competitors is not a bad thing for an early-stage startup. In this recipe you'll learn how to identify your competitors, whether they are large entrenched businesses or other early-stage startups like yours. For the competitors that are privately held, you'll learn how to research their traction and funding using online databases that track venture-backed companies.
Identifying your competitors
If your business is based on an industry that you know well, there's a good chance that you know the major players already. But if you don't know the industry, as part of your market research you should understand who the leaders are so you can determine how you stack up against them. If you don't already have a good list in your head of the major competitors in your space, there are a few ways to discover them:
- Go back through your customer interviews. See how your interviewees answered the question, "How are you solving this problem today?" and make note of any products mentioned. Reach back out to those individuals and ask them what they like and what they don't like about the product they listed. Ask them whether they would switch if there were a different product at the same price that didn't have the shortcomings they described.
- Use a search engine. If you already have a list of keywords that your customers would use to find your product, search for those keywords on Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo, and note the names of the companies that are currently advertising for those keywords. Those are your competitors.
- Check newsletter advertisers. Most industries have newsletters, mailing lists, or even trade magazines that specifically target their members. Subscribe to them, or check back issues if available, and make note of the companies that advertise there.
Product Hunt is a social network dedicated to discovering new products. It's mostly targeted towards software, high-tech, and consumer products so if your startup is focusing on those markets, Product Hunt can be a great way to discover newly-launched competitors. For the purpose of this recipe we'll use the Pittsburgh-based language-learning company Duolingo because it has a rich investment history. Here's the results for a search for duolingo on Product Hunt:
Three of Duolingo's products have been hunted on Product Hunt. You can click through to the detail to see more information about them. For example, here's the screenshot for Duolingo:
The most valuable information on this screen are:
- Screenshots of product functionality
- Discussions about strengths and weaknesses of the product
- Related products
- Upvotes and awards
Remember to check the date of the hunt - detail pages on Product Hunt are not usually updated, so the information about product functionality, strengths, and weaknesses may be out of date.
Researching your competitors
Once you have a list of other products in your space you need to understand how your solution compares to them so that you can be more effective in your marketing and sales efforts and so you can develop the Competitive Matrix in your pitch deck. The source of information about a company is the information they share about themselves, and that means their website.
Competitor digital presence review
For this step you'll want to set up a notebook to track your initial impressions. You're looking for qualitative data - Does the site look professional? Are there missingIt should be easy to find a competitor's website through a web search.
- Download and review any whitepapers they offer, and sign up for webinars and newsletters. The more information you can get about what they're focusing on, the better. if they ask you to register you can use a personal email address or a service like Mailinator.
- See what keywords Google thinks their sites rank highly for - use the Google Ads Keyword Plan Tool to help. You can use this information to plan your own SEO strategy as well.
- Record a list of products, and if there's a Pricing page, record all of the available pricing. Make sure that you normalize pricing to a unit, such as monthly or per-piece, so you can compare prices between competitors even if they don't use the same units.
- Visit the About Us page. Record the bios and titles of the leadership roles they list, and include the names and companies of any advisors.
- Content audit. Look under Blog or anything that indicates content that is added periodically. Do they post frequently? Do they use their own images, or do they mostly use stock photos? What themes do they focus on with their content?
- News. If they have a section of their site dedicated to listing press releases and other articles, how frequently is this updated? More frequent updates can be an indication that the company has a lot of word-of-mouth traction and may be harder to compete against.
- Job Postings. Job postings can be an excellent way to learn about the company's hiring priorities and culture. As your company grows you will increasingly find yourself competing over talent as well as customers, so you will want to understand your competitors' benefits and culture so that you can position yourself to attract the best talent in your industry. For software-based companies, job postings are also an excellent way to figure out what technologies a company uses in their products.
- Social media. You'll want to check major social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and TikTok. Typically the footer of their website will include links to any social media accounts they use actively. For the ones you identify, check how many followers they have and how frequently they post. If you dig in to posts from the company's followers you can potentially find areas of dissatisfaction that you can use in sales & marketing.
Evaluating competitor funding
For publicly-traded companies, you can find a lot of information on the company's financial situation by looking up their stock ticker symbol. For privately-held companies, especially ones that are early-stage, it's harder to find this information. There are two web-based databases that track investments and other details for privately-held companies; Pitchbook and Crunchbase. While both of these products are expensive to license, they both have a wealth of free information that you can access without a subscription.
Take your list of competitors and visit Pitchbook's profile search page. Enter the name of the company you want to look up in the search bar and press enter. Again we'll use Duolingo as an example.
If a company doesn't show up in results it may be because:
- They have never reported receiving external funding (Pitchbook only tracks companies that receive funding from registered investment firms or accredited individual investors)
- The company goes by a different legal name
- The database is incomplete (no system has perfect information. You should try your search on Crunchbase to doublecheck).
Click through to the detail view for the company you're targeting. The first page will give an overview of the company; when it was formed, how much total funding it's taken, how many employees and investors it has, and a description of the company.
The valuation and funding screen can be helpful to understand how many times the company has raised capital and how often. As you can see from the screen below, some data is only available to subscribers.
The competitors list is also valuable, although again the full list is only available to subscribers.
Lastly the investor list is extremely valuable (although only subscribers can access the full list). Investors will generally not fund companies that are direct competitors to a company they've already funded.
Crunchbase is a database of company information compiled by TechCrunch, a news portal focusing on startups and high-tech companies. Like Pitchbook, it has a paid subscription model that's likely too expensive for a startup to maintain, but investment firms will typically have access. Even though Pitchbook and Crunchbase have similar sets of information, it's worth looking up your competitors on both platforms because sometimes the information that's behind the subscription paywall on one is available on the other. Crunchbase also includes information on the technologies, patents, and intellectual property companies hold, so if you are looking for that type of information, Crunchbase should be your first stop.
With Crunchbase you can search directly from the home page. Here's the results for a search for Duolingo:
Crunchbase has some advanced filters that can be useful, like industry vertical, location, and company size. Its results also list some direct competitors right in the search results, so if you are having trouble identifying competitors this is a good way to get a list.
The Crunchbase summary page for a company is very similar to the Pitchbook summary page.
Crunchbase also lists a selection of the company's investors, including (for institutional investors) which round they participated in, whether they were the lead investor, and the name of the partner that led the investment.
Crunchbase also has a section that lists employees and board member / advisors . Sometimes this can be helpful when you are looking for information on the organization's structure and the network of people on their side, but note that these sections work similar to Wikipedia in that most of the information is volunteered by the individuals, so earlier-stage companies may not have any information listed.
One set of information that's unique to Crunchbase is data on the technologies a company uses. This typically only is available for software-focused companies, and they data displayed will be different depending on the type of products the company has. For example in the screen below, since Duolingo is primarily a mobile app the data highlights are metrics that are most important to mobile app traction.
Crunchbase also includes a section on the company's tech stack, but note that this is usually based on the company's website, which may not be the same as the technologies used in the company's products or platform. There's also an overview of any known IP, such as patents or trademarks, held by the company.