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Should we copy the competitors?

I've worked on products that have been the leader in the domain which are clearly performing a lot better than the competition, as well as on products that are competing neck and neck to get ahead of other products in the domain. While the first scenario is rarer, the second is a lot more common. After all, more than ninety percent of all Product Managers are working on products and features that have equivalents in competing products in the market.

And in such scenarios, the question often comes up - Should we copy the competitors?

While some answer it in the negative opting for a purer approach of understanding the user problems and building our products to address them without being driven by competition to act, others answer it in the positive as they feel there is little to gain by reinventing the wheel and it is better to "borrow" the ideas that have already been proven to be effective by the competition. The argument goes, if the features weren't effective, would the competitors still have it in their offering?

Rather than answer this philosophically or with a simple yes or a no, I like to answer the following questions to arrive at the decision:

1. What is the competition achieving with this feature?

While it is true that a feature offered by competing products is achieving some purpose for them and their users and hence is proven to have value, it isn't enough to go on to decide to copy that feature in our products. 

While I don't immediately copy the feature, I copy the reason for it's existence. Rather than blindly implementing the equivalent of what I see in a competing product, I look at the problem it is solving instead. And that ends up being a good starting point as the problem that the users of a competing product have are very likely a problem that our users have too.

This helps me understand what the competition is trying to achieve with this feature and what user need they are addressing through it. 

2. How high do we prioritize that need?

Once the user need has been reverse engineered, it is quite likely that we already recognise that our users have the same need too. And if not, I initiate a validation process to understand whether that is really a need for our users. And if it is, then this feature offered by the competition is one potential way to address it and becomes a part of the backlog with other ideas that we are pursuing to address the same user need.

At this point, I will realize whether the user need is something I am prioritizing over the other needs I'm solving for and will then prioritize working on the feature itself accordingly. If it turns out that there are more pressing needs to address than what this addresses, then perhaps it isn't the right time to implement this. 

3. Can we capitalize on our strengths to come up with a different solution to address the same need?

Once the user need is prioritized, the question of the suitability of the solution comes in. The competition might be leveraging their strengths in coming up with this solution for the user need while we might not have the same strengths. However, we will have other strengths that the competition doesn't and the solution that we come up with will have to capitalize them rather than simply mimic the competition. 

4. Does not offering this feature lead to users perceiving that our product is inferior to competition?

Finally, there is the consideration of how users perceive this feature. 

Sometimes, even though the feature doesn't capitalize on our strengths, not offering it might lead to users feeling that our product is inferior. This is usually achieved through the marketing and branding efforts of the competition where they try to play up their differentiation and convey it as a superiority of their offering when compared to other products in the market. This could be the equivalent of a car being sold in additional colours to a delivery service operating in a higher number of cities. 

And when the users perceive a product to be superior for having a feature, then the competitors that don't offer it will be considered inferior. Thus, it could potentially lead us to building such a feature even when it doesn't capitalize on our strengths. 

But, this is the last consideration after the above three.


While it is tempting and easy to look at what our competitors are offering and copy that, it may not always be the right thing to do. And we need to consider whether to copy the feature or not from the perspective of:
  • What need the feature addresses for the competition
  • Whether we prioritize solving for that need high
  • Whether we can address the same need in a different way that capitalizes our strengths
  • Whether not offering this leads to users thinking our product is inferior.
After this exercise, if it makes sense to copy the competitors, then by all means, we should.

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