Yesterday was the unSexy conference, and as a resident of Seattle, I tend to miss a lot of awesome startup events. This being one of them.
Rule #1: Stop obsessing about the competition. (slide 19)
In the context of MailChimp, it was arguably the most important part of their success. MailChimp wasn't the first player in the email marketing space, nor did their feature set put them leaps and bounds ahead. They simply did it better. They built a better product, experience and community that the others didn't. They did it their way.
The competition was the last thing on their mind.
When a product is created, it's likely that inspiration is drawn from somewhere, and most pick their most prevalent competitor to draw inspiration. Which typically results in clones.
That's where the comparable piece comes in. Instead of looking to competitors for inspiration, look to comparables. Find companies in a similar segment (ie. SaaS, Consumer) that you look up to and figure out what they're doing so well, what makes you envy them so much and try to apply pieces of it. Fill in the gaps with your own ideas. Inspiration should only consist of subtleties, not holistic pieces like the interface.
Outside of the initial analysis, competition should be nothing more than a slight pulse that you monitor. Not an obsession. Instead, obsess over comparables.
When we built Stride, we took products that we loved (MailChimp, Zendesk, Mint, Stripe) and dug into what we enjoyed so much about them. Then, we tried to apply it to ours, in our own way. MailChimp's inspiration dictated our color palate and the messaging that we used within the app. Stripe inspired our use of backbone.js to improve load times. If we looked to competitors for inspiration, we would've ended up with a slow product filled with a lot of grey and black.
We all can't be as brilliantly innovative as MailChimp, as much as we'd like to be. Gathering inspiration from others is okay, even encouraged, just not from the competition. What'll result is just that, another competitor.