If it works for Google (and for Apple), it might work for you.
Google just held its annual I/O Developer's Conference, and as my fellow Inc. contributor John Brandon wrote, the company has taken an Apple-like approach to many of its services and products. There is a new sense of unification:
Google has started connect disparate services like maps, search, mobile apps, and social networking with a consistent look and feel and better cross-pollination. Each device will match up better with your business life. Dismiss an alert on your phone, and you won't see it on a tablet. Leave for work, and your phone will know you are driving.
It's the sort of thing that you might expect out of Apple. It watches as others introduce products and only then enters the market, but with something better. In fact, this is often the modus operandi of Apple itself. Apple didn't build the first personal computer, portable media player, smart phone, or even tablet. But Google didn't create the first search engine or touch-screen smartphone. In fact, given Android's market success, you could argue that Google has managed to out-Apple Apple.
Watching competitors sounds like elementary advice, and in one sense it can be. But keeping an eye on competitors is only one part of the strategy; it's what you do next that matters.
Learn from watching
Being first to market sounds great. But is it? The pioneer often makes a rash of mistakes. How could you expect anything else? You have some combination of new product concepts, business models, distribution methods, and markets. The pioneer is bound to get swept down rivers, fall into holes, or otherwise court disaster.
Far better to hang back and watch what someone else is doing. Does there seem to be a good idea? Where does a predecessor go wrong? How would you put together something differently to avoid the obstacles?
Improve on what you saw
Following someone with the same thing, even if you know where not to step, is unlikely a path to huge success. You need to find ways to take a concept further and get past your competitor. With their search engine, Larry Page and Sergey Brin added a concept of popularity: looking at what sites linked back to. Using this approach, they could spot the sites that seemed to command more respect and interest. Those would receive higher rankings.
But an improvement doesn't have to be just technical or conceptual. Android has moved beyond Apple's iOS because, after acquiring the company that developed the operating system, Google made the software free and increased the odds of hardware vendors adopting the platform. Once that happened, there were many companies pushing Android sales. It was almost inevitable that, collectively, the company would move beyond Apple, which had only its own resources, impressive though they might be.
When you move, do it fast
Entering a market after competitors is a tricky business, as they do have a head start, even if you are learning from their mistakes. That is why you must move at a quick pace with innovation, getting offerings into the market, learning as you go, and adapting your operations as a result. Not only are you watching competitors, but you're watching yourself.
None of this is easy. But if you watch competitors, take notes, and then get into the market before they have a chance to gain an unassailable advance, you, too, can increase your chances for success.