Startups pride themselves on being unique. And when you really stand out from your competition, it's easy to start criticizing the way they do business.

I was recently in a meeting with a vendor who was upset about the way they were being treated by a competitor. There's nothing wrong with expressing emotions in the office, but they let their displeasure spill over into the meeting. They didn't know how to handle criticism.

And I began thinking about how criticism can take you down a slippery slope.

There is a line you can cross while critiquing that takes you into territory where you're simply being too negative. Even if a company deserves the harsh analysis you give them, speaking that way can alter your own image. It can make people question your character and whether they should work with you.

None of that means you can't talk about your competition. In fact, you can easily make your point simply by acknowledging the differences between the two of you.

Here's when critiquing the competition can actually benefit your startup:

When you can clearly explain why your company is better and different.

Without fail, every investor will ask you why your company is different. They want to know why they should be investing in you, rather than similar startups hungry for funding.

You can't evade the question in that situation. You have to be able to articulate why you're better, different, and poised to succeed.

And yet, you still don't want to dwell on the negative aspects of what your competition is doing. You want to focus on the positive things that make you unique. When you spend too much time talking about what the competition does wrong, people start to wonder if this is really about you--or the company you can't stop talking about.

Acknowledge what people don't like about the competition, and elaborate on what you do better.

When a critique ties back to your brand values.

There are times when a little criticism can help establish your brand's voice and story, especially early on when setting yourself apart.

For example, we run an ad on Facebook that asks women if they are "ready to graduate from Victoria's Secret" and try a ThirdLove bra. I actually wouldn't describe it as a critique of Victoria's Secret. To me, it is a way to differentiate ourselves and tell people why they should care about what we do. It also ties back to our story--the idea that buying a great fitting bra could be an easier, more comfortable experience.

A critique of the competition is fine if you ensure your brand is still coming across the way you want it to. It should be purposeful and focused on the story, not haphazard, as though you're lashing out. Because when you start to go out of your way to criticize, it begins to paint a public vision of your business that's not necessarily flattering.

If you cross the line into harsh or constant criticism, the story becomes about your negativity rather than the point you want to get across.

When it's based on facts and doesn't hurt established relationships.

There are definitely times when it's beneficial to have a relationship with your competitors.

Not long ago, I actually reached out to the founder of another bra company in our space. We realized our respective agencies had been bidding on each other's brand terms. It was a silly situation to be in.

I told them our team respected their brand and congratulated them on their success--and then proposed an end to the bidding that was costing us both money. Their CEO wrote back with the same sentiments, and we came to a mutual resolution.

Now, this was pretty rare. You're probably not going to have relationships with the founders of all the startups in your space. But truthfully, those aren't really your competitors anyway.

Your competitors are the established companies with massive market shares on which you're trying to make inroads. If you can figure out a way to coexist peacefully with other startups, it may actually make life a little easier.

Just remember, there will always be competition. At the end of the day, you should be focused on executing and making your customers happy.

So acknowledge your competitors. Know what they're doing and how it could affect you. But keep in mind the only thing you control is your company and your strategy. In some cases, criticism may be warranted, but focusing on your competition is usually a terrible use of your time.

Published on: Aug 29, 2018
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