In June of 2008, Google launched Knol, a monetizable Wikipedia, or, as some people saw it, a Squidoo killer. Not the same as what we were doing at Squidoo, not focused on individuals and their passions, but close enough for discomfort.
Our tiny team was in the headlights of a very big company.
One of the first things investors and advisors will say to someone launching a business, particularly a tech one, is, "sure, but what happens if Google/AT&T/Starbucks/Apple decides to get into your business? You'll be dead."
While the intent behind this question is generous, it's usually wrong. That's because it misses several fundamental elements of what allows a business to thrive, and how entrepreneurs often have a significant advantage over incumbents when they are building something new.
- It's almost never about technology. Many companies that are built on tech believe that it's the tech that enabled them to succeed. This is almost never true (I know, I'm biased). It's marketing and stories and connection and tribes and commitment and structure that build businesses. The technology is essential, but it's not nearly enough.
- First movers can become obsessed with external customers, not internal reports. We paid attention to Knol for about a week (who wouldn't?) but then ignored it. It wasn't relevant to our users, so it wasn't relevant to us. Our little team focused 100% of its energy on delighting our user base (which, while small at the time, was far bigger than Knol's). If you can give your users an experience that they want to tell their friends about, you'll grow.
- There are no lifeboats. One of the reasons Google was so extraordinarily successful with search was that it was all they had. Sink or swim, those were the only options. Google's competitors a decade ago had tons of things to work on, plenty of sources of traffic and revenue. Google had only one. At the beginning, the founding team at Google came to work every day focused on just one problem. We were in the same position in 2008, and that's the case of most small companies facing down a big competitor. We focused because we had no plan B.
The most disruptive thing about the entrant of a huge player is the impact it has on partners. It's easy to get skittish when the 800 pound gorilla arrives. I'm not sure there's an obvious way to deal with this problem… we resigned ourselves to doing whatever we had to on our own, figuring the partners would figure it out eventually.
This week, three years after the launch, Google threw in the towel and closed down Knol. Our pageviews and our user base have grown by many multiples since 2008. I'm not sure you should wish for (or even plan for) a showdown with the big player, but it should give you solace to know that a focus on your tribe of customers gives you a fighting chance.