The Competitive Analysis section of your business plan is devoted to analyzing your competition--both your current competition and potential competitors who might enter your market.

Every business has competition. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your competition--or potential competition--is critical to making sure your business survives and grows. While you don't need to hire a private detective, you do need to thoroughly assess your competition on a regular basis even if you only plan to run a small business.

In fact, small businesses can be especially vulnerable to competition, especially when new companies enter a marketplace.

Competitive analysis can be incredibly complicated and time-consuming... but it doesn't have to be. Here is a simple process you can follow to identify, analyze, and determine the strengths and weaknesses of your competition.

Profile Current Competitors

First develop a basic profile of each of your current competitors. For example, if you plan to open an office supply store you may have three competing stores in your market.

Online retailers will also provide competition, but thoroughly analyzing those companies will be less valuable unless you also decide you want to sell office supplies online. (Although it's also possible that they--or, say, Amazon--are your real competition. Only you can determine that.)

To make the process easier, stick to analyzing companies you will directly compete with. If you plan to set up an accounting firm, you will compete with other accounting firms in your area. If you plan to open a clothing store, you will compete with other clothing retailers in your area.

Again, if you run a clothing store you also compete with online retailers, but there is relatively little you can do about that type of competition other than to work hard to compete in other ways: great service, friendly salespeople, convenient hours, truly understanding your customers, etc.

Once you identify your main competitors, answer these questions about each one. And be objective. It's easy to identify weaknesses in your competition, but less easy (and a lot less fun) to recognize where they may be able to outperform you:

  • What are their strengths? Price, service, convenience, extensive inventory are all areas where you may be vulnerable.
  • What are their weaknesses? Weaknesses are opportunities you should plan to take advantage of.
  • What are their basic objectives? Do they seek to gain market share? Do they attempt to capture premium clients? See your industry through their eyes. What are they trying to achieve?
  • What marketing strategies do they use? Look at their advertising, public relations, etc.
  • How can you take market share away from their business?
  • How will they respond when you enter the market?

While these questions may seem like a lot of work to answer, in reality the process should be fairly easy. You should already have a feel for the competition's strengths and weaknesses... if you know your market and your industry.

To gather information, you can also:

  • Check out their websites and marketing materials. Most of the information you need about products, services, prices, and company objectives should be readily available. If that information is not available, you may have identified a weakness.
  • Visit their locations. Take a look around. Check out sales materials and promotional literature. Have friends stop in or call to ask for information.
  • Evaluate their marketing and advertising campaigns. How a company advertises creates a great opportunity to uncover the objectives and strategies of that business. Advertising should help you quickly determine how a company positions itself, who it markets to, and what strategies it employs to reach potential customers.
  • Browse. Search the Internet for news, public relations, and other mentions of your competition. Search blogs and Twitter feeds as well as review and recommendation sites. While most of the information you find will be anecdotal and based on the opinion of just a few people, you may at least get a sense of how some consumers perceive your competition. Plus you may also get advance warning about expansion plans, new markets they intend to enter, or changes in management.

Keep in mind competitive analysis does more than help you understand your competition. Competitive analysis can also help you identify changes you should make to your business strategies. Learn from competitor strengths, take advantage of competitor's weaknesses, and apply the same analysis to your own business plan.

You might be surprised by what you can learn about your business by evaluating other businesses.

Identify Potential Competitors

It can be tough to predict when and where new competitors may pop up. For starters, regularly search for news on your industry, your products, your services, and your target market.

But there are other ways to predict when competition may follow you into a market. Other people may see the same opportunity you see. Think about your business and your industry, and if the following conditions exist, you may face competition does the road:

  • The industry enjoys relatively high profit margins
  • Entering the market is relatively easy and inexpensive
  • The market is growing--the more rapidly it is growing the greater the risk of competition
  • Supply and demand is off--supply is low and demand is high
  • Very little competition exists, so there is plenty of "room" for others to enter the market

In general terms, if serving your market seems easy you can safely assume competitors will enter your market. A good business plan anticipates and accounts for new competitors.

Now distill what you've learned by answering these questions in your business plan:

  • Who are my current competitors? What is their market share? How successful are they?
  • What market do current competitors target? Do they focus on a specific customer type, on serving the mass market, or on a particular niche?
  • Are competing businesses growing or scaling back their operations? Why? What does that mean for your business?
  • How will your company be different from the competition? What competitor weaknesses can you exploit? What competitor strengths will you need to overcome to be successful?
  • What will you do if competitors drop out of the marketplace? What will you do to take advantage of the opportunity?
  • What will you do if new competitors enter the marketplace? How will you react to and overcome new challenges?

The Competitive Analysis section for our cycling rental business could start something like this:

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Primary Competitors

Our nearest and only competition is the bike shops in Harrisonburg, VA. Our next closest competitor is located over 100 miles away.

The in-town bike shops will be strong competitors. They are established businesses with excellent reputations. On the other hand, they offer inferior-quality equipment and their location is significantly less convenient.

Secondary Competitors

We do not plan to sell bicycles for at least the first two years of operation. However, sellers of new equipment do indirectly compete with our business since a customer who buys equipment no longer needs to rent equipment.

Later, when we add new equipment sales to our operation, we will face competition from online retailers. We will compete with new equipment retailers through personalized service and targeted marketing to our existing customer base, especially through online initiatives.

Opportunities

  • By offering mid- to high-end quality equipment, we provide customers the opportunity to "try out" bikes they may wish to purchase at a later date, providing additional incentive (besides cost savings) to use our service.
  • Offering drive-up, express rental return services will be seen as a much more attractive option compared to the hassle of renting bikes in Harrisonburg and transporting them to intended take-off points for rides.
  • Online initiatives like online renewals and online reservations enhances customer convenience and positions us as a cutting-edge supplier in a market largely populated, especially in the cycling segment, by customers who tend to be early technology adapters.

Risks

  • Renting bikes and cycling equipment may be perceived by some of our target market as a commodity transaction. If we do not differentiate ourselves in terms of quality, convenience, and service, we could face additional competition from other entrants to the market.
  • One of the bike shops in Harrisonburg is a subsidiary of a larger corporation with significant financial assets. If we, as hoped, carve out a significant market share, the corporation may use those assets to increase service, improve equipment quality, or cut prices.

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While your business plan is primarily intended to convince you that your business makes sense, keep in mind most investors look closely at your competitive analysis. A common mistake made by entrepreneurs is assuming they will simply "do it better" than any competition.

Experienced businesspeople know you will face stiff competition: showing you understand your competition, understand your strengths and weaknesses relative to that competition, and that you understand you will have to adapt and change based on that competition, is critical.

And, even if you do not ever plan to seek financing or bring in investors, you absolutely must know your competition.

The Competitive Analysis section helps you answer the "Against who?" question.

Next time we'll look at another major component in a business plan: how you will set up your Operations.

More in this series:

  1. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Key Concepts
  2. How to Write a Great Business Plan: the Executive Summary
  3. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Overview and Objectives
  4. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Products and Services
  5. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Market Opportunities
  6. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Sales and Marketing
  7. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Competitive Analysis
  8. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Operations
  9. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Management Team
  10. How to Write a Great Business Plan: Financial Analysis