I recently read a blog post by Steven Sinofsky (smart guy that I follow on Twitter) in defense of why he didn’t eat his own dog food at Microsoft and while I agree with some of what he said I think he came up short on execution because he didn’t eat the dog food and left their customers and products wanting because of an unwillingness to truly commit to and champion the vision.
Like Steve I love competitors, I respect them immensely, by them having customers I happily acknowledge their intelligence and efforts or if nothing else their dumb ass luck, but regardless they are a competitor and must have done something right to be such. I study my competitors, their product, their evolution, their successes and failures, their choice and use of technology, training, leadership, marketing, their direction, product releases and timing, customer support, everything I can learn about them, but my goal is not to copy what they have done, but to understand the market and our customers. All I really care about is what customers want and or need and so if I’m coming into an existing market then only a fool would ignore the wealth of experience their competitors already have. Even failed competitors can teach you something. While I’m learning about the market you better believe I’m using the competitor’s products, talking to their customers about their product, their x-customers, whoever, but again the focus isn’t their product, it serves merely as a reference point for understanding the market. My objective is simply to become a market and domain expert. Then use that knowledge to formulate what I think the best product is that we can build and what the best path forward is for that product to gather market share. Once I’ve become an expert the need to use a competitor’s product would be briefly at best to see what changes or modification they have made to measure my understanding of them as a competitor and to validate my expertise in the understanding the market. To say that I must keep using their product to keep track of them, would question my knowledge of the market.
I love building commercial apps, competitors and customers, where it is a battle of vision and who has it and who doesn’t and who can improve it. Do I look at competitors as enemies to be vanquished off the face of the planet, not in the least. If they are doing better then me, then I look at them as teachers as clearly, they know something I need to learn. If I’m doing better then them, then they are my motivation to constantly improve, and I get pissed if they quit pushing me. In the end I believe deeply in having competitors as it fuels the drive for the best possible product in the least amount of time and that is ultimately what the market wants and deserves.
There were lots of things I didn’t like about Steve Jobs, but certainly there were things to admire about him. His expertise and commitment to his vision of what customers wanted despite what other companies were doing was admirable, but also endorsed by the fact he was right and dominated the phone and tablet markets (proof is always in the pudding, lots of people have a dedicated vision that results in disaster, but we tend to call those obsessions). You didn’t see Steve Jobs using a Windows Phone, or even a Windows laptop as he felt they were beneath his vision and lacked soul. He didn’t feel a need to track what his competitors were doing, to be honest I doubt he even cared as he believed in his expertise and vision and that was all that needed to be championed. This isn’t about not liking someone else’s product, it is about constantly driving improvements and confidence in your product. When you admire someone else’s product, you are really admiring their vison and that is fine, lots of very smart folks out there, but your job is your product’s vision. Have you ever seen Tim Cook use a Surface, Android phone, fit bit, etc? Any Google Executives using an iPhone or Bing? Image does matter both to the market and your employees, but most importantly if their product doesn’t work for them, they fear that also doesn’t work for their customers and that pain point helps drive improvement. You are a phone developer and get a call that the CEO’s phone just ate his data, you are on that like white on rice, but you’re also impressed he is using it.
I believe in eating your own dog food. If your product isn’t working, has awkward flow or anything else that makes you feel uncomfortable, then you should feel uncomfortable until you fix it. If you can simply switch to a competitor’s product, then you lose that motivation to really drive improvement in your product. It is vitally important for your market to see you using your product, especially if its a new product as it helps them feel confident that you are also experiencing their frustrations while using your product and you are not only motivated to fix them but that you are confident in and committed to the product long term. You have put your skin in the game, and you have something to lose just like your customers, but more importantly you validate their belief in your product and it’s future. When you use a competitor’s product what you are really saying is “our product might be pretty good, but its not as good as the competitor’s product that I’m currently using otherwise why wouldn’t I use our product”.
You don’t get to control the customer’s perception, certainly you try to influence it in a product positive way, but customers perceived Microsoft management using competing products not as market research (which should have been finished long before the Windows Phone was released), but as an admission that the competitor was still better. Why should they use the less desirable product? You wouldn’t use it, why should they? Eat the dog food, make the commitment to your customers.
I’ll admit in the case of the Windows Phone it had some problems coming out of the gate, but so did the other guys. UWP was moonshot and development tools and API’s for example weren’t ready for prime time at the release of the phone, but UWP was a great idea and I love now being able to use tools and code I know on everything from simple IoT Devices to Augmented Reality Headsets and everything in between. I think Microsoft’s shareholders were far to short sighted to see the vision and Mobile paid for that and the repercussions are going to last a long time (most apps are run on mobile devices and the problem isn’t just not having the apps or developers, its having access to the data the apps create and use to drive things like Machine Learning, not being in the mobile space is going to hurt).
Now I’ll admit I’ve never had the chance to run something as ambitious or complex as building a new OS and hardware for a company where software was pretty much a cut in stone religion, but I have experience with several successful start-up companies. Including one where we were the new kid on the block but within a year we were the 800lb Gorilla with a market cap of almost 2 Billion dollars because we nailed the vision and executed and delivered the product that the market wanted. Did I know my competitors and their products, I knew them intimately and because they were such very good teachers they helped me become a domain and market expert. Our vision and product was significantly different then theirs and ultimately more in line with what the market really wanted. Which product would I use, ours of course, it does what I need and in a way that makes sense, and does it consistently without surprises and is committed to a long future of innovation and improvements, why would I want to use anything else? I enjoyed that dog food, we worked hard to make nutritional and great tasting and far better for our customers then our competitors did. Too bad I can’t say the company lasted long after I left to go do another company, I’m always looking to learn new things, it is what makes life interesting.