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Mar 18 / heathgross

“What’s After Next?”

Leveraging competitive intelligence to identify innovation white space

 

Today many companies are surveying the market and asking themselves, “What can we make next, how can we improve our product and what would be innovative?”  ‘What’s next?’ can often lead to incremental innovation, continued competition and a lack of differentiation. Instead we should be asking, ‘What’s after next?’  Leveraging competitive intelligence, organizations can look beyond what is next, gaining valuable insight into ‘What’s After Next’, will enable you to pursue true product differentiation, find open, uncontested markets and leap frog the competition.

Speaking of leapfrogging, do you remember this?  Frogger is a great illustration how important it is to plan your strategy several moves ahead.

 

Are We Asking The Right Questions

 

It isn’t hard to figure out what the unmet market need is.  Consumers are pretty vocal; ‘I want my phone to be able to do this’, ‘I need an app that can do that’; ‘we need a medical device that is capable of…’  The problem is, everyone is asking those same questions and getting the same answers.  While they may tackle the issue differently, the result is a new wave of products that address the same need, though their approach and ability to meet that need may differ.  The result is threefold:

  • A race to be the first to develop and launch, leading to compromised quality or capability
  • Minimal differentiation
  • Incremental innovation

Is there a way to innovate that avoids this trap?  Yes.  Don’t base your innovation strategy on what is next, instead, look to ‘What’s after next’.

If you want to reach the Lily Pad, or in this case “white space”, you have to navigate dangerous roads, roaring rivers, crocodiles and snakes.

 

Looking for ‘What’s After Next’

 

How do you do that?  It requires a very different process.  Most innovation today is based on what consumers want or need today.  While there is some consideration for what is already in the competitor pipeline, the focus is usually on how to do the next thing better.  Again, this results in waves of similar products hitting the market within the same window, forcing them to compete on price and features, rather than on meeting an unmet need.

A smarter use of our innovation resources would be to focus on ‘what’s after next’.

 

Where is the white space in the innovation pipeline?  There is a three step process we can use to do that:

1)     Map the consumer needs

2)     Map the innovation pipelines of the competitive landscape

3)     Look for white space opportunities beyond what is next

For those organizations that are more risk averse, and that have the resources, there is another step that can be used:

4)     Develop a strategy that balances low-risk incremental innovation with higher-risk white space innovation.

 

Looking For Whitespaces

 

How do you find the innovation white spaces? Figuring out what the competition is working on can be challenging. While their ‘next’ innovation may be fairly public and well known within the market, their pipeline is likely less public. There is a chance they are already working on their ‘What’s after next’ innovation. A common technique for gaining insight into future innovation is by examining the paper trail created in the R&D period of innovation. Conducting patent analysis, analyzing new hires and studying the competitors’ technology licensing and acquisition strategy are all useful techniques in trying to ascertain where a competitor might be innovating ‘after next’.

But there is still an even better way: competitive intelligence can be leveraged to provide details of competitor R&D and innovation strategies. This information can then be used to identify the innovation white spaces.

TO LEARN MORE: Please contact Sedulo Group. And later this month we will add a video for a more detailed understanding of identifying the innovation white spaces.

Jan 14 / heathgross

Think like the competitor. Act like the competitor. Beat the competitor.

Illustration by Yinan Wang

 

How many of you remember this dialogue?  If you don’t know what a dial-up modem sounds like, you are probably too young to remember this movie.

Scientist:         General, are you prepared to destroy the enemy?
General:          You betcha!
Scientist:         Do you think they know that?
General:          I believe we’ve made that clear enough.
Scientist:         Then don’t! Tell the President to ride out the attack.
Colonel:           Sir, they need a decision.
Scientist:         General, do you really believe that the enemy would attack without provocation, using so many missiles, bombers, and subs so that we would have no choice but to totally annihilate them?
[Loudspeaker]             One minute and thirty seconds to impact.
Scientist:         General, you are listening to a machine! Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.
[Loudspeaker]             One minute and twenty seconds to impact.

 

Recently my firm was asked by a major pharmaceutical company to support a war game exercise for one of their OTC brands.  Every time I hear the term “war game” I can’t help but think about the 1983 movie, War Games, staring a very young Mathew Broderick.  I was 13 years old when I first saw this movie and even then this particular dialogue stuck with me.  “General you are listening to a machine! Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.”  What a great line, one that we would all do well to listen to, in both business and life.

Over the past couple of years our firm has steadily evolved from a tactical oriented competitive intelligence agency, focusing almost exclusively on just answering KIQs (Key Intelligence Questions), into a full service competitive strategy firm.  One aspect of that evolution has been an increase in opportunities to support our clients’ strategic decision making process.  I have always believed that, if done right, a war game exercise can be a great tool for decision support and team building.

In today’s business environment we have become increasingly dependent on technology; a war game reminds us that computers are no match for the human mind when it comes to creativity and understanding human motivations:  two key ingredients to developing effective business strategies.

Computers are great for storing and mining data, for extrapolating, calculating and projecting… but computers only know what we teach them.  Computers have no emotional intelligence.  They lack the ability to understand human motivations.  They cannot create or truly strategize.  Sure, they can cram data into algorithms and models that certainly can provide insight.  But they can’t think. For now, at least, thinking is still the sole domain of humans.

Developing a strategy to counter your competitors’ messaging requires that you understand how the competitor thinks, what motivates them, what keeps them up at night.  It requires you to put yourself in the shoes of the competitor and ask, “What would I do if I were them?”

That is the true essence of a war game – that is really what a war game is.  War games come in all shapes and sizes, but at the end of the day, that is the goal of every war game: to role-play the enemy (competitor) in order to try and predict what they might do.  A war game enables you to develop contingency plans and offensive strategies that can proactively disrupt or blunt the predicted actions of the competitor.

Of course there are other factors involved in developing a business strategy besides just the actions of competitors.  A good war game will factor in a number of variables into the scenarios, exploring both the macro and micro influencers, from the general economy to regulatory, technology and consumer trends.

I could probably write a book on how to conduct an effective war game (in fact a number of people have) but for now I will leave you with a few simple suggestions:

  • Know Your Enemy: Ok, so this is business and these aren’t really your enemies, but they are your competitors.  Having robust briefing decks on each competitor is key.  You want the teams to have the decks a few days before the war game so that they can learn as much as they can about the role they will be playing: How does the competitor make decisions?, What is their culture like? What kind of budgets do they have?  These are just a few examples of the kinds of things the teams will need to know in order to effectively think like the competitor.
  • Don’t conduct your war game in a vacuum:  One mistake I see a lot of companies make is basing their war game scenarios on too many assumptions.  Certainly you can’t know everything your competitor is going to do (if you could you would not need to do a war game), but conducting research before the war game is one of the keys to success.
  • Don’t rely solely on secondary research:  Most companies are very good at gathering secondary research, but when it comes time to plan your strategy, it is generally worth the investment to hire a good primary research vendor to fill in as many of the knowledge gaps as possible BEFORE the war game.  See ‘Are You Driving Blindfold?’ for more on this.
  • Have fun, be creative:  For most people, the idea of a full day or two of ‘Strategy Development’ sounds like as much fun as a root canal.  There a number of things you can do to keep the war game fun, so explore some options with the idea that a war game can be a team building process as well as a strategy development exercise.
  • Immerse the teams:  Using things like video, competitor name tags and props can help to immerse the teams, enabling them to ‘get into character’.  The more the teams feel like the competitor, the more likely they are to think like the competitor.

Remember, war games give us an opportunity to do what all of our technology can’t: think.  In a world where we are spoon fed data at a nauseating pace, war games give you a chance to step back, unplug, be creative, have fun, and in the process develop a creative business strategy that will help you out maneuver and outperform the competition.

Mar 29 / heathgross

10 Reasons Most Companies Don’t Know Jack About Their Competition

Do you know who your competition is?

Illustration by Cat Scott

Like many of my peers in the competitive intelligence community, I am a member of several competitive and market intelligence LinkedIn Groups. Recently I came across a discussion thread that summed up why …

Most Companies Don’t Know Jack About Their Competition!

A member of a particular group asked a very natural question that many folks new to competitive intelligence might want to know. The question:

“Does anyone know the best place to find company and financial information on a privately-held company? I have a budget and a tight deadline. Hoovers, One Source & D&B have nothing. Thanks.”

The responses to this question left me scratching my head. Below are ten of the responses:

  1. I would suggest checking the state records for which the company is incorporated. It varies and depends on state laws. Also, you may need to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain access. In most cases, it is very difficult.

  2. I have used manta.com, Reference USA (from my public library) and Skyminder Information Services as good backup resources. If the company is large….forbes.com has the top 200 privately held companies list.

  3. In Europe each individual country has a trade registry with some of the latter being public. Good access to the company’s official papers and financials.

  4. Here is a web site to get financial data about French private companies. http://www.societe.com. It is a French website. Hope it helps.

  5. Check with Capital IQ for private company financials, particularly for US based companies. It’s a subscription based service.

  6. For all Private Equity/Venture Capital backed companies, Dow Jones VentureSource is the one place to look. It is a subscription based service. Otherwise, in Europe, country specific and free DB are great. For France, www.societe.com and www.infogreffe.fr. For Germany, www.handelsregister.de.

  7. In Bulgaria full company trade registry history and financials for the last 4 years at https://public.brra.bg/CheckUps/Verifications/VerificationPersonOrg.ra Works only in Bulgarian.

  8. Orbis is a data source which provides company and financial info for all public companies.

  9. First check the secy of state filing to see what corp documents are available and then you can google the officers etc.

  10. I assume you checked your target’s website first of course

Secondary, secondary, secondary. Keep in mind this was a competitive intelligence LinkedIn Group, not market research. I am not suggesting that these recommendations are not valid; each of them has individual merit. What baffled me was that not one of my peers suggested primary research. As I have said many times before, the best way to get detailed information on a company is to pick up the phone and talk to someone!

Here are some questions you may be asking yourself…

But Isn’t Secondary Faster?

Perhaps no one suggested primary research because the member stated, “I have…a tight deadline”. It is true that primary research generally takes longer than secondary; however, in my experience it is possible to get primary intel within a very short time frame if one uses the right approach. Without knowing what was meant by “tight deadline” there was no way to know if the member had ten hours or ten days. Ten hours probably wouldn’t be enough, but generally ten days is plenty.

But Isn’t Secondary Cheaper?

What about the “I have a budget” issue? Maybe that is why no one suggested primary research; after all, isn’t primary research much more expensive? The answer: yes and no. It is true that some of the techniques mentioned in the responses are free. After doing some research of my own, I learned that all of the subscription based services mentioned (almost half of the responses) cost more than what we would charge for answering the same question. So, unless the member already has access to these secondary sources, primary research may actually be more cost effective.

What About Detail and Accuracy?

Primary research can generally provide far greater detail and with a higher rate of accuracy than secondary. Our research has demonstrated that the financial figures provided on companies via secondary sources can be off by as much as 200%!

We recently completed a company profile for a client in which we had only five days to perform the research. In five days, we were able to gather extremely detailed financial data that we were able to verify with the VP of Business Development. What is equally impressive is that we were able to do the study for less than $4,000. (Access our download center for a sanitized version of this report)

In Short

The reason most companies don’t know Jack about their competition is because if you limit your research to secondary, you will only know a) as much as everybody else and b) what your competitor wants you to know. In business, like in war, that is not the kind of intelligence you want to build a strategy on.

To those who are new to competitive intelligence, let me say this: Secondary research can be a great tool for gathering high level information quickly and efficiently, but it is important to understand that it comes with significant limitations. See The Four Disciplines Of Competitive Intelligence for more on this.

To my peers who are either consumers or providers of competitive intelligence: You can’t find everything online. The internet is great, but if you really want to get forward looking, hard-to-get intelligence, it’s time to put down the mouse and pick up the phone.

I’d love to hear from readers about what your experience has been with primary vs. secondary research, particularly around private companies.

Want to see how primary research can help you? Contact Sedulo Group for a free custom competitor profile.

Feb 19 / heathgross

Market Research and Competitive Intelligence

The Two Heads of Janus

Competitive Intelligence vs. Market Research

Illustration by Cat Scott

There is no mistaking that Market Research and Competitive Intelligence are very different disciplines, yet they share the same end goal: providing reliable information to support the business decision making process. That is pretty much where the commonality ends.

At the risk of being accused of playing World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons, I’d like to make a metaphorical reference to the Roman god, Janus, to illustrate a point. In Roman mythology there is a two-headed god named Janus that is said to be the God of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, endings and time. The two heads of Janus face in opposite directions; one head looks backward in time, while the other looks forward.

In many ways, Market Research and Competitive Intelligence are like the two heads of Janus.

Market Research gathers information by surveying lots of people, usually customers, in order to gather their opinion and insights on certain topics. Once the survey is complete, analysts apply various tools and techniques to extrapolate the data and postulate on its meaning. Market Research is useful for determining common opinions and identifying market trends. Market Research is built on historical data; looking to the past in order to gain insight to the future.

Competitive Intelligence, on the other hand, is not about talking to lots of people, it is about talking to the right people. When conducting Competitive Intelligence, if three reliable sources give you the same answer to a question, then the intelligence is considered triangulated and the analyst moves on to the next question. While Market Research generally focuses on customers, Competitive Intelligence focuses on key stakeholders and influencers. Because it involves talking directly to individuals that will shape the industry, Competitive Intelligence is predictive. Competitive Intelligence represents the head of Janus that looks into the future.

Combined, Market Research and Competitive Intelligence, like Janus, provide both a historical and predictive view.

An Example

A while back my Competitive Intelligence firm had a client that commissioned us to conduct a Competitive Intelligence study examining the tuberculosis (TB) vaccine market. The TB vaccine currently being used around the world was developed over 50 years ago and is not very effective. The market for TB is estimated to be somewhere between $500M to $1B annually. Before hiring us, the client had completed a Market Research study that surveyed over a hundred medical personnel in order to determine unmet needs and gain insight into what experts believed would be the future TB treatment paradigm. The research was extremely helpful in painting a picture of where the market was then and what was needed for the future.

Our job was to conduct Competitive Intelligence in order to determine what our client’s competitors were developing. We conducted Competitive Intelligence on over a dozen companies developing TB vaccines and were able to construct a comprehensive competitive landscape that included detailed product profiles, clinical trial intelligence, and anticipated launch dates. The intelligence came directly from stakeholders with firsthand knowledge, ensuring the predictive reliability of our findings.

The results of the Market Research report and the Competitive Intelligence study provided the client with a complete view of the market. Often times businesses feel they need to choose either Market Research or Competitive Intelligence to support their decision making, however in many cases there is real value in using BOTH.

The Same End Goal

Generally, companies use Competitive Intelligence and Market Research to support many of the same business decisions. Let’s look at a few examples:

Messaging

Market Research tends to focus on what customers think about a product. This focus is important because it will support the company’s marketing strategy and messaging. Similarly, Competitive Intelligence can focus on a competitor’s positioning and messaging, enabling companies to develop counter-messaging and sell-against strategies.

Product Development

Market Research can be used to gain insight into what customers want and what their unmet needs are. Using this information, companies can improve existing products or develop new products that fill a market void. Competitive Intelligence can be leveraged to help companies understand their competitors’ R&D strategies, product development pipelines and technology roadmaps. Combined, the two disciplines provide a comprehensive view of what customers need and what is being done to address those needs.

Pricing

Market Research is often used to help set prices for products and services, providing insight into what customers consider acceptable. Competitive Intelligence can provide detailed information on competitor pricing strategies, discount strategies, rebates, etc. Knowing how your competitor is pricing their products and services is a distinct advantage as you formulate your own pricing strategy.

As you can see from these three examples, Market Research and Competitive Intelligence can be used in combination in order to build a more complete view of the market. Like Janus, the two disciplines provide a view of the past and future, enabling businesses to build strategies based on both hindsight and foresight.

Limitations of Market Research & Competitive Intelligence

Market Research is excellent for gathering large volumes of quantitative and qualitative data which can then be analyzed in order to form a picture of the past and current market. Applying trend analysis, Market Research can give clues as to where the market is headed. The limitation of Market Research is that while it is very effective at communicating the current state of the market, it is less effective for providing insight into the future market.

Competitive Intelligence is more suited to providing a truly predictive view of the market. By talking directly to competitors, suppliers, regulators and even customers, Competitive Intelligence is able to provide insight into what the groups are actually planning to do, rather than relying on predictions based on historical data. One limitation of Competitive Intelligence is that the sample size is generally too small to be considered “statistically significant”, which means that while the information is very useful in determining the specific actions of a company, it not effective for determining group opinion.

Market Intelligence: The Hybrid Alternative

An additional research option is Market Intelligence. I won’t go into detail here (look for a follow-up post later) but suffice it to say market intelligence blends the larger sample sizes traditionally seen in Market Research, with many of the benefits of Competitive Intelligence. Market intelligence is very useful for supporting activities such Voice of Customer and Industry Landscape studies; combining the detailed, granular intelligence produced through Competitive Intelligence interviewing techniques with the larger sample sizes used in Market Research.

One of the things I like about the Janus metaphor is that Janus is the god of gates and doorways. Janus stands in the doorway looking at the past and future, similarly it could be said that Market Research and Competitive Intelligence stand at the gateway of market success.

Leveraging Competitive Intelligence and Market Research enables us, like Janus, to position ourselves at the market threshold, looking backward in time (historical data) and forward in time (predictive intelligence) simultaneously. One cannot overstate the value that such a perspective could have in developing a strategy for your product or your company.

Feb 1 / heathgross

How Top Companies Use Competitive Intelligence to See the Future

seeing the future of your company

illustration by Cat Scott


What if you had a crystal ball that would allow you to look into the future? Whether you are an entrepreneur or an executive of a Fortune 500 company, the idea of being able to see three, five or ten years into the future would be invaluable. Think about this: Groupon did not exist three years ago. Five years ago no one had heard of Facebook. Ten years ago Yahoo was the leading search engine. If you build a business strategy based on a static view of the market, you are likely to get passed by your competition.

Well, I can’t sell you a crystal ball, but I can tell you how you can build one.

About six years ago I began to study and explore the concepts of Foresight Strategy, also known as Future Studies or (my favorite) Futurism. What fascinated me about this odd, often overlooked, discipline was the very scientific approach that is uses to gain insight into the “future.”

To be clear, I am not talking the Jetsons or Bladerunner here. I am talking about a systematic approach that helps us envision what the future might look like. We have all seen the Popular Mechanics magazines with city-size bio-domes and flying cars. While images like these might fall under the umbrella of futurism, Foresight Strategy is more focused on the business applications of the discipline rather than the fantastical view of the Matrix or 2001 Space Odyssey.

Foresight Strategy is an interdisciplinary field focused on postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. There is a debate as to whether this discipline is an art or science, though I would argue that it is a little of both.

Three factors usually distinguish futures studies from the research conducted by other disciplines (although all disciplines overlap, to differing degrees).

  1. First, futures studies often examine not only possible but also probable, preferable, and “wild card” futures.
  2. Second, futures studies typically attempts to gain a holistic or systemic view based on insights from a range of different disciplines.
  3. Third, futures studies challenge and unpack the assumptions behind dominant and contending views of the future.

[wiki paraphrase]

It does not take much imagination to see how this discipline could be leveraged to impact long term strategic planning for businesses. Still not convinced? Watch the following video and you will be.


These ads were produced in 1993, a full decade before any of these technologies were available. How did AT&T do it? I doubt very seriously that it was the result of a bunch of ad boys sitting around in a room dreaming up jetpack, flying-car scenarios. No, more than likely the creative team did their research. They likely turned to a number of technology experts and thought leaders and asked, “What new technologies do you think the next ten years will bring?” They may have even looked around at what technologies were being developed in their own labs, at the universities and, perhaps, even by their competition.

Foresight Strategy is not about dreaming up ideal futures, it is about looking at historical data and then using predictive analysis to develop possible future scenarios. I use the term “possible” because there are far too many variables to truly “predict” what will happen. However, by developing a series of possible and even probable scenarios, decision makers can build long-term contingent strategies.

In addition to possible and probable futures, many futurists support the concept of preferred futures. The underlying belief of preferred futures is that the future can be influenced by our present actions, which is good news for businesses. For instance, the possible and probable future of a particular market is based on a number of variables including technology, politics, macro and micro economics, etc. However, the preferred future would be a scenario that is more tailored to the desired outcome of, say, a particular business. The preferred future scenario would be presented with variable outcomes that would need to be aligned in order for the preferred future to be achieved.

Think of this as cracking a safe: All of the pins must be aligned in order to open the door. Knowing which variables need to be influenced helps strategic planners develop the short-term tactical steps that need to occur in order to achieve the long-term goals. These variables are often referred to in business strategy jargon as “strategic imperatives.”

While I am a fan of the idea behind foresight strategy, I find that the methods used are sometimes a bit nearsighted. Particularly, I was surprised, and admittedly disappointed, to learn how many foresight strategists relied largely on historical data. My undergraduate degree was in History, and my graduate work included quite a bit of statistics and trend analysis, so I certainly can appreciate the ability to build predictive models using historical data. Yet I can’t help but feel that if we base our foresight on hindsight we end up with less than 20/20 when it comes to envisioning the future.

How To Build A Better Crystal Ball

  • Don’t rely solely on historical data.
    I have found that if you want to build a more accurate view of the future, a key element is to talk to those that will help shape the future. If I am working with a client to help them develop a foresight strategy focused on a particular technology or drug market, I am going to make sure that we are interviewing the people who will impact that market.
  • Perform competitive intelligence.
    As mentioned previously, Foresight Strategy seeks to develop a holistic view, so I will be sure to conduct competitive intelligence and qualitative research, talking to regulators, thought leaders, competitors, suppliers, vendors and customers. Each one of these groups will have an impact on the future of the market. What is more predictive than someone telling you what their long-term strategy is? No amount of historical data can equal the value of good qualitative, primary based research.
  • Analyze qualitative findings
  • Test qualitative data against historical data (This Part Gets A Little Nerdy)
    Once I have analyzed the qualitative findings, I can test those results against the predictive outcomes generated from the historical data. Using this approach provides a more realistic balance between the subjective market view and the more objective trends in data.

Keep in mind the goal is not to generate a single predictive view of the market, but rather to build a series of probable futures. The strategy in Foresight Strategy occurs when we develop short and long-term plans that address the various futures, as well as a plan to influence the variables which will enable us to achieve the preferred future.

Think of it this way: it’s not so much a crystal ball, as it is a crystal cube, each side of the cube representing a possible future, like dice. The objective of Foresight Strategy is to develop a plan for each side of the cube, so regardless of how the die lands, you are prepared for the outcome. Developing and pursuing a preferred future, then, is like playing with a loaded die.

In summary: A good crystal ball gives you foresight, built not on hindsight, but on qualitative research and competitive intelligence that provides true predictive insight.

Look for a follow-up post I plan to call “How I Predicted the Housing Market Bust: But No One Cared” as an example of the predictive benefits of qualitative research.

How has Foresight Strategy helped your company?

Jan 25 / heathgross

Tweet, Tweet

Heath Gross on Twitter

illustration by Cat Scott

If you enjoy the sardonic ranting and raving of enGrossed.me then you won’t want to miss my twitter feeds. Just as bold and outspoken, I don’t pull punches and don’t mind telling it how it is. Mixing business speak and prose, like milk and wine, I like my readers to smile and learn and the same time. Isn’t that what life is all about?

Follow me on twitter @heathgross for news on upcoming blog posts, perspectives on entrepreneurism, philanthropy, business, thoughts about life and a general overall sense that the world is an imperfect place full of imperfect people. I promise to keep it fun.

Jan 20 / heathgross

Pros and Cons of ‘Do It Yourself’ Competitive Intelligence

do it yourself competitive intelligence

illustration by Cat Scott

I can say with confidence that 99% of companies in the world practice some form of competitive intelligence (CI). It may not be a formal, sophisticated process, but almost all companies have some way of trying to figure out what their competition is up to.

Often when I am explaining what our company does, individuals will tell me, “Oh we do that. My boss had me call all the competitors to try and get their price list.” This is what I call DIY CI, or Do It Yourself Competitive Intelligence.

In some ways doing competitive intelligence yourself is like trying to build a deck yourself:

A few years back my wife and I bought our first home. It was a nice, modest, three bedroom, two bath house on a cul-de-sac. One shortcoming of our new house was the deck; a small, dilapidated structure clinging to the back of our home. At the time I was still employed by Uncle Sam so cash was pretty tight, if I wanted a new deck I was going to have to build it myself. I had helped a friend build a deck once, so I wasn’t completely inexperienced, and, as most men will claim, I am pretty handy with power tools. If I was going to build a new deck, I didn’t just want a boring, run of the mill deck; I wanted something special. I took some time, and some chances, and drafted a nice big deck with an attached, screened-in gazebo. I borrowed some tools from my neighbor and set out in earnest. I’d like to say that my hard work and planning paid off, but the fact is, I am not a professional contractor; it was, after all, a do it yourself project. In the end we ended up with a lopsided, oblong octagon gazebo with a crooked roof and a door that scraped when you tried to open it. (To my credit, in addition to being fairly inexpensive, it was also pretty sturdy.)

Every company has competitors. Even if no one else does exactly what you do or makes exactly what you make, you still have competitors. Knowing what your competitors do, what they sell, how they sell it, how much they charge and what they are going to do next is important. Understanding even just these basic things about your competition will enable you to better position your company. Should you add a new product? Change your prices? Adjust your marketing? It is very difficult to compete in any market if you don’t know what the other players in that market are doing.

This is a pretty basic concept, of course. But how do you get that information? Oftentimes managers know what they need to know, but don’t know exactly how to go about getting it. In the absence of a formal process for gathering competitive intelligence they typically just task someone to ‘get’ the information. Because of requests like this there are probably 50,000 people online right now Googling their competition: browsing their competitor’s website, poring over financial reports, surfing through message boards, and sifting through press releases.

There are both pros and cons to DIY CI. Let’s talk about the pros first.

PROS OF DIY CI

  • It’s cheap.
    If your company or department does not have a budget for competitive intelligence then the easiest way to get information on your competitors is to do the research yourself, or have a staff member get it. You are leveraging the resources you have available and, in some cases, that may be your only option.
  • It’s fast… usually.
    Browsing a competitor’s website and reading through their quarterly reports does not take long. With a little practice and perseverance you can put together a very high level snapshot of a competitor in less than a day. That’s pretty fast. Of course the devil is in the details; there are limits to what you can learn with this approach. One pitfall to avoid here is what we call the rabbit trail. It is very easy to get so caught up in following every little twist and turn, every subtle hint of information, that before you know it you look up at the clock and realize you have just spent an entire day Googling a competitor and all you have to show for it is 120 bookmarks and a lot of disconnected bits of data. This is not intelligence and is seldom helpful for planning strategy.
  • It’s better than nothing…usually.
    Knowing a little about your competition is better than nothing at all. Trying to run a business without knowing your competition is just plain dumb. At the very least, DIY CI can provide you with a basic snapshot of your competition. If nothing else, this overview will help you identify your knowledge gaps, facilitating more efficient follow-on research.

CONS OF DIY CI

  • Limited Information.
    What happens when you can’t find the information you want through Google? What if your competitor does not publish their price list? What if their quarterly report does not say when they plan to open the new plant or how big it will be? This brings us back to where I started with this post.
  • It’s unethical.
    People often tell me how they ‘just called their competitor and pretended to be a customer’. This is a great idea in theory, but also highly unethical and, in some cases, even illegal. What I just described is known as pre-texting which was outlawed under the 1996 Economic Espionage Act. To some this might just sound ‘resourceful’ or ‘shrewd’, but by claiming to be someone you are not for the purpose of gathering information, you are in fact putting yourself and your company at risk of being sued, or worse, prosecuted. What I tell my clients is ‘there is nothing you are going to get by breaking the rules that is worth the risk.’

    So what does this mean? It means that a company conducting competitive intelligence internally should limit itself to secondary research, which unfortunately, as I have already pointed out, has severe limitations.

  • Lack of expertise.
    It is one thing to spend a day Googling your competition and building a nice little PowerPoint deck for your boss that provides an overview of your competition, but how useful is that? Believe it or not, there are big, multinational companies that make game-changing strategic decisions based on little more than the PowerPoint overview I have just described. DIY CI is limited by the expertise of the individual doing the research and the means that they have to gather the information.

As a competitive intelligence firm, we do not provide our clients with just data, or information; we provide them with intelligence. Intelligence is actionable, it is insightful. What we provide our clients is forward-looking and predictive. It is based on fact and analysis, not speculation and projections. Do you see where I am going with this? DIY CI can seldom produce the level of depth or granularity that you will need to make well-informed tactical and strategic business decisions.

If you can’t convince your boss or your senior executives to give you the budget you need to do real competitive intelligence, then it is imperative that you explain the limitations of what you can legally and ethically do within your skill set. If you really want to know what your competitors are up to, what they are doing today, and what they plan to do tomorrow, then you need primary competitive intelligence. Hiring a professional competitive intelligence vendor might help you avoid building a lopsided business strategy with crooked walls and a door that scrapes when you try to open it.

Note: DIY CI does not refer to companies that have sophisticated internal competitive intelligence functions. Generally these CI functions are responsible for overseeing the secondary research efforts, managing CI vendors, interfacing with internal clients and conducting tactical and strategic level analysis on the competitive intelligence that is collected.

Mar 4 / heathgross

CI in short: What is Competitive Intelligence?

competitive intelligence in short

What is competitive intelligence and why should businesses use it?

Learn all about competitive intelligence in this fun but informative video.

Video not displaying? Click here to view it in YouTube.

Jan 6 / heathgross

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

illustration by Cat Scott

This is a picture of why many companies and products fail. How is it that a company with a multi-million dollar market research budget can get caught off guard? I will tell you how.

Several years ago I was doing contract competitive intelligence (CI) work for a CI firm. The firm had contracted me to provide primary research support on a project for one of their clients, a major pharmaceutical and biotech company. The project lasted almost a year. During that time I learned some very valuable, albeit disturbing, things about how some companies think and act. Since then I have witnessed this same problem in many of the companies I have come into contact with, from small, nimble, start-ups, to large, multinational conglomerates. It’s what I like to the call the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil Phenomenon.

This is what happened. (I am omitting a number of details in order to protect the ignorant)

The client was developing a new vaccine, a vaccine for which there was no current competitor on the market. The company had already spent millions of dollars in development and was quickly approaching the pre-launch phase of the program. The vaccine had the potential of being a multi-billion dollar vaccine… but there was one problem. The problem wasn’t the science, it was sound. It wasn’t the market, the market was ready. It wasn’t even with the regulatory authorities; the FDA had already given subtle indications that a vaccine of its kind would be given a fair and speedy review. The problem was that the company was not alone. A rival biotech company was speeding along, neck-and-neck, with the development of a competitor vaccine. It was a race to the finish line.

The first part of my job was to talk to Key Opinion Leaders and provide feedback on how they felt about the two vaccines. By the time I got involved it was already clear to many in the industry that the client’s vaccine was slightly inferior. This was not good news to the client, though it surprised me that this was the first time they were hearing this news since both vaccines had been under development for several years.

My second objective was to determine what the launch timeline was for the competitor’s vaccine. If the client’s vaccine could get to market first, it could establish a strong market presence, limiting the scientific advantage of the competitor vaccine. However, after interviews with a number of key competitor stakeholders, I learned that the competitor program was right on schedule and might even beat the client’s vaccine to market!

My next objective was to provide ongoing monitoring of the competitor. I was to provide up-to-date competitive intelligence on the clinical trials, regulatory status, and pre-launch marketing activity of the competitor’s vaccine. This, as you will see, proved problematic: Not because I couldn’t get the intelligence (I did), but because of the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil Phenomenon.

This is what I learned.

Problem 1 – See No Evil: The product managers, scientists, and marketing personnel driving the program for the client had never bothered to pull their head out of the sand and look at the world around them. For several years they had been developing their vaccine in a virtual vacuum, paying little attention to what their competitors were doing. They did not see simply because they were not looking.

Problem 2 – Hear No Evil: By the time I got involved in the project there was a growing minority of client employees that had begun to peek through the hands covering their eyes; what they saw concerned them. My reports were very clear: The client was losing the race and something drastic had to be done, and it had to be done quickly. But by the time the product management team began to voice their concerns, the executive team would not listen. They had spent millions on development and were sticking to their course. It was the blind leading the deaf.

Problem 3 – Speak No Evil: The CI firm that had contracted me had been working for this client, providing competitive intelligence monitoring, long before I was brought on. They had read the writing on the wall just as I had, but they had failed to sufficiently warn the client. It’s not that they were negligent in their duties; the reports contained all the facts. Anyone on the client’s side that would have opened their eyes or their ears could have seen and heard the warning signs. But they didn’t. And the CI firm did little to persuade them. This was one of those instances where the CI firm needed to grab the client and shake some sense into them (metaphorically, of course). But that would have been risky, that could have meant possibly losing the client. So, they did their research, typed up their reports, and said very little, and quietly watched as the client poured millions of dollars into a vaccine race that everyone knew they were going to lose.

And lose they did.

So what is the moral of the story?

For product managers and those mid-level executives charged with bringing a new product to market, or defending an existing market position: Open your eyes! Pull your head out of the sand! Ignoring the world around you will not make it go away. Rest assured, if you have a good idea, there is a very real chance someone, somewhere, is already working on it. Hire yourself a good competitive intelligence firm and find out what the competitive landscape looks like. If you are already doing competitive intelligence, then read the report and ask your vendor what they really think.

For executives: Open your ears. There is a good chance that someone, somewhere in your company is warning you of the impending iceberg. Someone in your company has a better understanding of your competition than you do. Listen to them. If there is no one in your company that can provide you with a comprehensive view of your competitive landscape, then that means no one is doing competitive intelligence. Find yourself a vendor you can trust, one that not only does great research, but one that will be objective and candid (I personally think that my firm, Sedulo Group, is your best choice, but for a list of other vendors visit the SCIP website). Hire them…and listen.

For Competitive Intelligence Firms: Yes, our job is to answer our client’s questions, but sometimes our clients don’t see or hear the world around them and, therefore, are not asking the right questions. You may be doing your job while at the same time doing your client a disservice. If and when you see your client heading down the wrong path, when they won’t open their eyes or ears, it’s your responsibility to grab them (again, metaphorically of course) and shake some sense into them.

Warning: I practice what I preach, and I can personally attest that there is risk involved here. Look for my post Getting Fired Never Feels Good to read what happened when I tried this recently with a client.

Every day companies are losing business because they don’t see, because they don’t hear and because no one is telling them what their competition is doing or plans to do. Don’t fall victim to this phenomenon: Open your eyes, open your ears, or, pick up the phone and call me – I will candidly tell you exactly what your competitors are up to.

Jan 3 / heathgross

The Four Disciplines of Competitive Intelligence

Four Disciplines of Competitive Intelligence

illustration by Cat Scott


When I first got involved in the competitive intelligence (CI) industry, I assumed that competitive intelligence was synonymous with primary research.

It was not until I attended my first SCIP conference that I learned that there was more to competitive intelligence that just primary research; there were in fact a number of disciplines that fell within CI that I knew very little about. Of course, that was a long time ago. Since then I have developed an understanding and appreciation for all of the disciplines that make up the competitive intelligence industry. What’s more, I believe that all four disciplines, working together in concert, are required for an effective competitive intelligence program.

Let’s take a brief look at the four disciplines.

  1. Secondary Research CI is a discipline that uses a number of methodologies to sift through various published sources in order gather information (data) about a competitor or industry. These sources include online search engines, company financial reports, public records, periodicals, job boards, social media sites, syndicated reports, etc. Secondary Research is valuable in that it enables a company to gather large volumes of data very quickly. When used properly it can also provide a tool for monitoring an industry or competitor’s activity on an ongoing basis (though it is limited to monitoring activity that has been made public).
  2. Technology CI generally refers to software developed by third party vendors, or in-house solutions, that are designed to help store, process, and analyze competitive intelligence information. Some of these systems are designed specifically for CI, while others are designed for broader applications but can be used to support the competitive intelligence process (SharePoint is a good example of this). While these systems can be very beneficial in supporting the competitive intelligence process, the software itself does not conduct research, it merely helps store, process and analyze information.
  3. Competitive Intelligence Consulting is more of a general term that I use to describe all of the soft services that help a client utilize competitive intelligence. Consulting services could include war games, scenario planning, product launch strategies, etc. Essentially, CI consulting is about taking the intelligence that has been gathered and figuring out how it impacts the company’s business decision or objectives. It also includes operational elements of competitive intelligence such as CI Program Audits, Counter-CI Evaluation, and Training and Best Practices Assessments. Like CI Technology, CI Consulting does not gather information, though it can be used to transform raw data into intelligence. Good CI Consulting can help paint a picture of what a competitor is likely to do based on analytical projections.
  4. That leaves us with Primary Research Competitive Intelligence. Primary Research is the process of gathering information directly from individuals who have access to the information one needs. Unlike secondary research, primary research does not focus on published information. Primary research sources could include competitor employees, competitor vendors and suppliers, competitor customers, etc. While primary research can address questions about past and current activity, the primary goal is to learn about what the competitor is going to do: ‘what are the intentions and plans of the company?’

The four competitive intelligence disciplines together can provide a company with an accurate and detailed view of the competitive landscape, enabling one to better understand the past, current, and future activities of competitors. Primary research should be the cornerstone of any competitive intelligence program. Without primary research, you may know what your competitors have done, but you have no real way of knowing what they will do next.

For more on this, read Are You Driving Your Business Blindfolded?, and check back for Primary Research: Seeing the Future.