Quality is a Commodity

The key to selling is differentiation. You need to excel at somethingover your competitors. And, to be successful, that somethingneeds to be valuable to your customers. It’s one thing to excel through a collection of odds-and-ends features; it’s an entirely different thing to excel through that piece that makes your customer’s $100,000 business become a $1,000,000 business.

Over the years, I’ve had the fortune of meeting many talented entrepreneurs in various stages of their journeys: from initial ideation to firing on all cylinders. I try to ask each one a seemingly straightforward question: “What makes (whatever you’re selling) better than everyone else out there?”

Often, that answer is some variant of “We do the same thing, but we’re higher quality.” While that might be enough to get a business off the ground, it’s not enough to grow it in the long term. Over time, quality becomes a commodity: as your industry matures, your industry’s “hard problems” will become easier problems, and the ability to execute against them well will be commonplace.

The web hosting industry is a great example. Ten years ago, your options for hosting a website were very limited: inexpensive shared hosts, with poor quality and frequent downtime; or expensive dedicated servers (and, later, VPSes), with higher price points and skillset requirements.

Recognizing this gap in the market, a number of managed hosts — focusing on solving the hosting challenges of particular market verticals, and doing it well, began to pop up. My day job at 10up puts me in regular contact with one specific niche of this managed hosting marketed: content publishers that use WordPress.

WPEngine was an early entrant in that space, and was defined by the quality of its execution: cost effective, easy to use, and it worked. Over time, other managed hosts entered into the market, and they caught up. This market has become mature over the last 5 years, marked by at least a half dozen entrants with similar price points andquality.

And, unsurprisingly, it’s no longer possible to enter the WordPress managed hosting market and differentiate by quality — and those early players that relied solely on quality to differentiate have failed to thrive. Differentiation now exists in feature-sets and focus: developing functionality for more specific niches (enterprise publishers, developers, higher education, etc.).

There’s good news here: you can use this knowledge to improve your startup’s execution from day one. There’s a more efficient pathway than starting with an emphasis on quality and hoping you figure the rest out later.

From the start, keep your product vision as focused as can be — products that try to be everything to everyone become nothing for no one. Regularly test and refine your hypothesis in the marketplace — and, of course, execute well (quality might be a commodity, but people will still notice when it’s lacking).

This early focus has a number of tangible benefits. It’ll help you narrow down your feature roadmap, better understand your customer (the more specific your target persona, the better), target more effectively via digital marketing, and give you a framework for regular testing and iteration in the marketplace with a reasonably testable hypothesis (for example, it’s much easier to test iterations of a timeline tool for design project managersthan it is to test iterations of a timeline tool for everyone). While your competitors are looking for product/market fit and investing time in features that won’t ultimately matter, you’ll have the tools you need to focus your effort on entrenching yourself in your market.

Quality can’t help you stand out in the long term — but realizing that early can help you get a step ahead when it counts the most.