Many of you may not think of it this way, but penetrating a target market with your startup is a lot like a military invasion.
I've learned over the years that you need to start with specific goals, a focused strategy, and a motivated and prepared team in order to penetrate competitive defenses. Too many entrepreneurs I know charge into battle with only their passion, and hope for the best.
I recommend you review the business startup experiences of some successful entrepreneurs with a heavy military influence, such as R.Riveter, which landed $100,000 from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank, to enlist military spouses from across the country to make fashion handbag components.
Here are some key strategy elements I see highlighted by the military:
1. Gather your intelligence on where and when to hit first.
Too many entrepreneurs push their product out without the proper scouting on high return or weak points in the existing market. They assume their innovation will overwhelm any competition, anywhere. The old adage of "location, location, location" could mean your city, or another country.
It has long been assumed that starting locally is a requirement if you need investors. Yet VC feedback indicates that even this bias has been declining over time, perhaps due to significant improvements in videoconferencing and other communications technologies.
2. Focus on one key objective rather than a broad global win.
We all start with limited resources, so don't try to win over everyone with the initial charge. A broad attack will likely confuse potential customers and will spread your resources too thin to satisfy any. There is always time for broadening, or scaling your focus to pick up additional segments.
For example, a few years ago the experts were telling SkyBell that they needed to own the whole smart home platform. They resisted this urge, and won by focusing first on providing an effective single-point solution showing users who was at their front door.
3. Capitalize on territory the competition has not penetrated.
Use your new features or innovation to quickly get a foothold in the market. Be realistic with your intelligence gathering to find pockets of real interest, rather than assuming that "everyone wants one" of what you have to offer. This always means targeted marketing and special programs.
4. Line up your resources and training before you roll out.
Some entrepreneurs think they can do it alone or can learn on the fly. It takes a team to run a business, with the tools and training to handle any skirmishes. I'm sure you have all heard of a highly promising startup that failed due to a lack of inventory or non-existent customer support.
5. Marshall friendly forces within the territory for support.
Smart entrepreneurs use social media and influencer advocates within the target market to build momentum and provide direction and support, even before they are ready to attack. In today's age of communication, customers look to friendly forces to find a new invader they trust.
6. Aim for competitor vulnerabilities and premier opportunities.
Initial penetration and success are what you need to convince mainstream customers to switch or try your new solution. Don't be afraid to pivot or adjust your attack as you see weaknesses in competitive offerings or major customer opportunities that you didn't anticipate.
7. Build collaborative partnerships with potential competitors.
Many entrepreneurs forget about white-labeling and strategic supplier relationships as routes to customers and long-term leadership. Don't be afraid to communicate and negotiate with the enemy to find win-win opportunities and confirm your position as a major market player.
8. Keep your eyes open and be ready to counter flank attacks.
Charging into battle with blinders on, expecting no surprises or resistance, is foolhardy. Every smart entrepreneur reviews his strategy and progress with the team at least weekly, and reserves some resources for changes and counter-attacks. Be willing to take risks, but don't be reckless.
In my experience, almost every startup has the challenge of tackling larger and more established adversaries or existing alternatives in the market they choose to serve. Thus it makes sense to treat it like the life or death operation it really is. Don't let your passion and ego limit your ability to enjoy the legacy and long-term success you always dreamed about.