Competitve Advantage

Not A Moment of Thought

This morning, I have been watching two Mallard drakes chase each other around the wetland area near our house.  One duck is clearly obsesed with chasing another one from the pond, forcing his nemesis into the deep reeds.  All the while, the two hens are being courted by a third duck that just arrived.  Had the dominate drake payed attention to the hens he had claimed then perhaps he may have not been usurped by a stealthy opportunist.

Typically, as a company grows larger it spends more money on market research and analysis of its competitors.  Numbers are sliced every conceivable way.  The more effort that is put into market research, the less innovation takes place and suddenly everyone is at a square dance responding to the same caller.  The real trick is to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit and chemistry.  If you dedicate yourself and your cause to fixing the problem that ultimately energized you to launch your enterprise, you are on track.

Are you giving your competitors a moment of thought and chasing them around the pond?  Are you staying focused on your purpose or distracted by those in your peripheral vision? 

I cycle past a real estate sign listing vacant land as part of a regular riding route.  The realtor’s sign had been twisted by the wind and tagged with graffiti.  To my surprise I saw new signs when I passed the lot yesterday.  Across the street was a new listing from a competitor.  The new realtor’s sign was larger and composed of graphics and pictures.

 The sudden appearance of a competitor was a reminder that if you are not attend to your competitive advantage another organization can come along and corner the market.  The realtor with the original listing and the abandon sign was playing catch-up.  The ‘dip’ that the competitor had to cross (as Seth Godin would say) was so small that it took few resources to change the game.  Had the first real estate listing been more active and attended on a regular basis, perhaps it would have made it harder for the new listing to standout.


Could you describe your competitors in detail?  If the idea of competition makes your organization nervous, are there organizations you consider good benchmark’s for your cause?  Do you really understand how many volunteers they engage and the techniques they use to retain donors?  Have you read their annual reports?  Does somebody from your board attend a competitor’s programs?  Do you access their financial returns online or use their compensation structure for benchmarking salaries?

Assign staff, board, volunteers to get to know a competitor better.  Encourage them to assemble a portfolio of information and make a presentation of their findings.

If your organization wants to understand its competitive advantage you need perspective.  Many organizations only engage in competitor analysis once every five or ten years during strategic planning but the opportunity to renew your understanding today only enhances your day-to-day decision making.

Managing Change

The drugstore Walgreens grew from around 200 stores to over 500 during Prohibition.  The most significant catalyst for the store’s growth, they were able to fill prescriptions for medical alcohol.  In Daniel Okrent’s book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he unveils a series of Prohibition loopholes that have impacted everything from the creation of the woman’s powder room to bar closing times to the very brands that are considered the market leaders today.  Sometimes the market creates opportunities that nobody anticipated.


I just returned from a four-day Second Grade spring trip that culminated with an overnight at the Pocatello Zoo.  Speaking with the zoo administrators at the end of the trip, they told us that Pocatello Zoo is one of ten in the nation that focuses exclusively on native animals found in the state of Idaho.   The animals in captivity are ones that cannot survive in the wild due to injury or other constraints.  To put the market in context, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimates that there are 2,400 animal exhibits running nationally.  

When considering ways to stand out from the crowd and enhance your competitive advantage consider the Pocatello Zoo.  By focusing on native species they are no longer in direct competition with the rest of the zoos in the region.  There is no need for a new tiger or giraffe which come at tremendous cost.  They are educating the public about what one can expect to find in the very hills and valleys behind the zoo.  A subtle paradigm shift from the traditional zoo changed their market.

Photo Credit: Pocatello Zoo Website