Creating controversy is the single faster way to get your startup on the map. While you should always strive to create lasting value, it’s a much longer road to recognition.
Box.net CEO Aaron Levie is my favorite example of an entrepreneur who uses emnity to drive sales. Since it’s inception Box.net has had an intense rivalry with Microsoft’s SharePoint product. Perhaps rivalry is the wrong word. Box is expected to IPO in 2014, but even with an infusion of cash it never has and never will pose a real threat to Microsoft’s business technology juggernaut.
Issues of scale aside, Box has been one of the loudest and more tireless critics of Microsoft. It’s a strategic and effective way to generate undue attention for your startup.
Box buys billboards along Highway 101–the central artery of Silicon Valley–proclaiming their benefits over comparable Microsoft cloud storage technology. After one such billboard ran its course, Levie said at CloudBeat 2011 that he had it hung in the Box.net office in Mountain View. A technology company with millions of users has very few reasons to buy display advertising. There’s nowhere for customers to buy their product in the real world. The purpose of the advertisements is to provoke and annoy Microsoft, as well as to instill a sense of belonging in the Box team.
Why your enemy is your friend
The right enemy will do more for you than all your efforts combined. Make sure to choose your enemies wisely.
On its own Box could never outmaneuver or outspend Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft has enough money that when Box was small, they could have bought the startup and killed the company just to muzzle Levie. If this had happened, it would have been a huge win for Levie and his small team, because they would have achieved a fast and lucrative exit. However, the merits of their technology, and their dedicated sales and product teams got them to the IPO stage.
As an unknown cloud storage company Box.net could have gone through the slow and agonizing process of creating a standalone brand. Instead they choose their enemy wisely, and rocketed into the public consciousness. By choosing Microsoft as their enemy Box steadily injected their brand into the mind of current customers and likely purchasers. Without earning the right to be compared to Microsoft, they positioned themselves against Microsoft, and made themselves much bigger and more formidable than than their size.
Repositioning your enemy
““Repositioning” is when someone tries to redefine where a brand stands,” says Atomic Tango founder Freddy Nager. “Coca-Cola claims to be “Classic,” so Pepsi repositions them as old-fashioned and tired. Microsoft claims to be ideal for business, so Apple repositions them as awkward and uncool.” BTW, the Microsoft reference was an accident, but they’ve clearly painted a big target on their back. By presenting yourself against a larger competitor you start to shape how their customers view them, and present your business as a viable alternative.
Nager also recommends “chiseling” your enemy, with a number of devious, but effective tactics. Chiseling is the act of chipping away at the core value of your enemy’s brand in a steady, systematic fashion, as Nager explains.
And whether you want to participate in the dark arts of repositioning, it’s worth a read just to recognize if they’re being used against you.
Don’t be afraid to stir the pot
Controversy sells. If you choose your enemy wisely people will pay attention to you, and the right prospects may become your customers. The worst thing in the world is to be ignored as a business, or as anyone with an idea. A little controversy, or a lot is a great way to separate yourself from the pack, and to show what you’re made of. People like a rivalry, and they love an underdog story even more. Be smart about the enemy you choose, and that underdog story could one day be about you.