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Gathering Competitive Intelligence
Product Managers must thoroughly understand the landscape in which their products function. A competitor is literally any product, service, or tool that someone might use to accomplish a goal similar to your product's. Don't just think of technology products -- think blue sky. Writing a letter is a competitor to email. An abacus is a competitor to a spreadsheet. Even if nobody you know actually uses an abacus, there may be things about it that you can learn from in defining your product.
To create your list of competitors, hold a brainstorm and really dig deep to uncover alternatives to your product. If a customer is not spending money with you to solve a problem, where are they spending that money? (With software-as-a-service (Saas) like the ones I've worked for, do-it-yourself solutions created by assembling together a bunch of other companies' products counts as a competitor.)
Another way of finding competitors is to search on the web for specific keywords that are relevant to your business -- what kinds of products does a blind web search turn up?
Armed with that list, Product Managers need to gain some first-hand experience with competitive products. Sometimes this can be as simple as buying something in a store and taking it home and using it. In the types of companies where I work, the data is usually harder to get because the competitors are often stealth-mode companies who may be years away from a public launch.
Here are some (legal and ethical!) means I've used in the past to glean competitive tidbits without getting onto the competitive company's radar screen:
- Scour the Web: Search on the web for any articles you can find that contain the company's name or domain.
All of the third-party discussion will generally give you a more unbiased view of the company than what the company says about themselves.
- Searching on the domain can turn up messages posted in various places by people who work for the company.
- Use Yahoo! Search to search through blogs to see if anyone is blogging about the company.
- Search the Google discussion groups to see if anyone is posting messages about the company.
- Look up the Domain: For a company that has very little public information, and you literally have no information about the company other than its name, do a WHOIS lookup online for the domain the company owns. You can usually do this through a domain registration service. This may provide you the name of the person who manages the domain and their location. From there, you can do a search on that person, maybe through LinkedIn, to find out more about them, which may lead you to other people associated with the company. Maybe you even can reach out and make a connection to one of those individuals.
- Talk to People: You may not know anyone who actually works for the company, but perhaps someone you know does. LinkedIn is a great way to find current and past employees of the company -- and past employees can be a particularly good source of information. I've approached past employees of competitors very openly and honestly, telling them I'm just looking at the space and want to educate myself some more about it. I've found that people are usually very open to a brief discussion or possibly even lunch (and if they're not, what does that say about the company, or perhaps about your approach?). They will tell you what they feel comfortable sharing, just as you should do with them.
- Buy the Product: If the company does have a shipping product, buy it and use it. Study the whole experience of the product, from your initial interactions to the technical support you receive. What can you infer about the quality of the product and your interactions with the sales and support teams, even the hours the support center is open?
Once you've gathered your intelligence, be sure to store it all somewhere. I keep a folder on my computer for each competitive company and drop into the folder anything I gather from the company, ranging from brochures and help manuals the company produces to my own notes and observations. As the folder grows, I review it periodically to reinforce my mental picture of the company and its products.