Column: If a Competitor Calls, What Do I Do?
Spencer Rascoff is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire and dot.LA, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. He is currently executive chairman of dot.LA and a board member at Zillow and TripAdvisor. In fall 2019, Spencer was a Visiting Executive Professor at Harvard Business School where he co-taught the "Managing Tech Ventures" course. In 2015, Spencer co-wrote and published his first book, the New York Times' Best Seller "Zillow Talk: Rewriting the Rules of Real Estate." Spencer is the host of "Office Hours," a monthly podcast on dot.LA featuring candid conversations between prominent executives on leadership, diversity and inclusion, and startups.
As a startup, should you take calls from competitors?
I get this question all the time and have grappled with it myself throughout each of my founding ventures, most recently with the launch of our real estate startup, Pacaso. This also came up in my interview with legendary venture capitalist Bill Gurley at the dot.LA Summit last October where, among other things, we talked about dealing with competition as a growing company.
If you're asking this question, first, congratulations. You've launched something that is turning heads, either from interest or concern; making it onto the radar of more established companies in your industry isn't a given, so pat yourself on the back. Second, you're right to ask this question because it's a complicated situation. You want to protect your infant company from those who could copy or destroy it, but you also want (and need) to show it off to the world and open doors for its future. The trouble is, every company who calls you has potential to fall into one of these camps, and usually no one (including them) knows which one at this stage.
So what do you do?
My general opinion is you should always take the calls from potential competitors. Yes, there is the small risk that you are exposing yourself to an existential threat (the Google or Facebook copycat is a common ghost story among startup founders), however, more frequently these conversations plant the seeds for future business development partnerships or exit opportunities that take a year or more to come to fruition. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that all 16 acquisitions that we did when I was CEO of Zillow came about only after long courtships.
But don't just pick up the phone unprepared. Competitor calls, like every move you've made thus far, need a plan and a strategy to be successful. Here are three parts of your strategy you need to form before you open your lines of communication:
Establish your fine line between differentiated and dangerous.
As I said, the nightmare scenario of all founders is getting the bigger players so excited about your startup that they copy your idea and kill your company. That clearly does happen, so the goal of your meeting should be to pique their interest but quell their excitement (or panic). Clearly lay out your value proposition, but make sure you are differentiated enough so they don't feel threatened; you don't want your competitors to think you're going to be so successful that you're going to steal their success. And, if you have an ace up your sleeve, keep it there — never share anything that is proprietary, even if it makes your case for differentiation. Side note: while it does help to have an NDA in place, don't rely on it; instead, just avoid sharing confidential information at this early stage.
Stick to your talking points.
Prepare for these conversations as you would for an interview or an investor pitch, because in a way that's exactly what they are. First, determine your meeting goals: Do you see this company as a potential acquirer? Do you see them as a growth catalyst through strategic partnerships? Or are they just a good contact to have with similar goals but in an entirely different swim lane? Figure out what they're worth to you. Second, prepare your talking points: You want to convince them your startup is going to win in its space but not threaten your competitors' space. You want to appear interesting and potentially valuable to them but not on their same strategic path. The ideal outcome from this conversation is that they decide to keep an eye on you from the periphery to potentially buy you or partner with you later. Third, tone down the chest-thumping: In founding your company, you've been the number one evangelist and believe your own PR, but you want to take a more moderate approach to conversations with your competitors.
Also, one area that is too commonly overlooked is who gets to take the calls from would-be competitors. I strongly advise you to limit these conversations to the most senior level, ideally at the C-level, not the vice president or business development level. Small teams assume everyone will know the right thing to do, and most of the time they don't. Make sure you have a policy in place for taking business development calls from any company in your industry or within ancillary services — and that this policy is clearly communicated not just to leadership but to all employees.
Have the conversation at the right time.
Timing is also an important consideration, even though sometimes it will be out of your control. If you believe the competitor could be a valuable partner or acquirer in the future, it generally makes sense to wait to take the call until you're a little further along in your journey so you can credibly give the impression that you're going to win in your space. Plus, in your first few months you will learn much more about how the industry receives your startup and will be better positioned to navigate the conversation. If you believe this competitor is a direct threat, you may want to take the call right away to placate them, potentially buying you time to slip off their radar once the buzz of your launch dies off.
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