Julie Pan is the co-founder of NewsAI, a news intelligence tool for public relations professionals to monitor news and discover influencers. She recently graduated from NYU College of Arts & Science with a degree in Computer Science. Julie spent the first half of her life in Taiwan and the second half in the Bay Area. While at NYU, she was a part of the student organization, Tech@NYU, and an avid attendee of the collegiate hackathon scene.
This post is part of the NYU Summer Launchpad blog series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way. Learn more about the NYU Summer Launchpad 2016 participants here.
How to Understand Your Competitive Landscape
My co-founder, Abhi and I met at Tech@NYU where we worked together in event-planning and infrastructure-building roles. Having worked as a developer at Buzzfeed News, Abhi was deeply interested in building a platform to stay on top of the news cycles, which would source the latest information on preferred topics. He approached me to join his project with the plan, at that time, to build a better news aggregator. We used this project as the technical prototype to apply to the NYU Summer Launchpad and we were excited to be selected.
We learned from the teaching team the importance of customer discovery and understanding our competitive landscape. We found ourselves thinking long-term and how to turn our "project" into a business.
One of the first lessons Frank and Lindsey taught us is to talk to as many people as possible in our customer segment, prior to building out the product. As part of this discovery, we wanted to identify their deepest pain points and also about the products, if any, they are currently using to address the pain points. Learning about our potential competitors was important for us to understand how to differentiate our fledgling startup against behemoths with extensive resources.
Here are some of the tactics we used to learn about the competitive landscape in the field that we are in, ranked by order of helpfulness.
1) Talk to Your Customers
The best insights we learned about our competitors were from our customer interviews. We made it a point to understand how they are currently solving the problems with media monitoring and influencers discovery. We asked questions such as - what they like and dislike about each method, how long it takes for them to solve the problem, how did the sales happen, what kind of support do they get, and how much they paid for the solutions. We asked our customers to demonstrate how they would use the product on a regular basis. Sometimes they said “no,” but the few times they said “yes,” we learned so much about the features that are absolutely vital for our audiences.
In our case, our potential customers are account executives in public relations agencies, in-house communications department staff, and Institutional public affairs officers. We further defined each subgroups into categories based on size of the company and sectors. How a public relations agency does media monitoring and influencer discovery in fashion might be completely different from how another agency might do their research in healthcare. A mid-size agency might use completely different tools from a large agency. By talking to PR professionals who use these tools and seeing how the tools work first hand, we had a better understanding on how we need to differentiate ourselves and prioritise development goals.
2) Sign up for Competitor's Demo
This method might be more applicable for enterprise SaaS products. Aside from customer interviews, it is also very valuable to go directly to your competitors. Since we are in the SaaS space, we disguised ourselves as a newly minted public relations agency and asked our competitors for demos of their products. By requesting a demo of the product, sales reps are always very willing to answer any question we had about the platform, customer support, pricing, and how other customers are using the product, which was valuable information to us. We learned about the sales cycles of our competitors, the level of support, and what pricing strategies they are using given their product offering.
3) Read Public Relations Blogs/Subreddit/Forums
Another good way to understand our competitors was to source information from the community by reading different PR-related blogs, trade magazines, and subreddits. We went to several PR subreddits to see what topics generated the most heated discussions and responses. If it is a dire problem, there are people looking for ways to solve it. PR professionals are particularly candid about their opinion of the tools they use. Many influencers in the PR field are writers by nature and they write extensively on the trade. Often, they will give advice on how to solve various profession-specific concerns, which we read to understand our customers.
The big tenet of the Summer Launchpad accelerator is to get out of the building and talk to customers. The insights that we derived from this process have been the most valuable in understanding the market, the competitors, and most importantly, the customers. We are very excited to see what is in store for us the next couple of months as we test various MVPS and put prototypes in front of people.