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Does your startup need an enemy to survive?

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in downtown San Francisco and we had just closed our seed round of financing. I was grabbing coffee with the former head of PR at one of the most successful traffic apps in history. The topic of the day: whether enterprise startups needed PR in their first two years of existence.

Within a few minutes he confirmed my initial thoughts and gave me the most valuable piece of PR advice: “You don’t need PR right now. What you need is to focus on your product and to find an enemy. Every startup needs an enemy to differentiate themselves.”

I am referring to a figurative enemy, that formidable antagonist that gives more purpose to the problem your company is trying to solve. For the past year we have been trying to find our enemy and after obtaining a dozen clients, and having hundreds of meetings it is now clear:

Real big-data solutions like ours have the undeniable enemy of repackaged analytics, solutions that are claiming to be something they’re not. There are so many analytics, hardware, and consulting firms calling themselves big data companies it’s genuinely beginning to hurt the software industry as a whole. For us it became easy to rally around the idea that real Big Data solutions have important differentiators that give us the right to make big claims. The rest are just piggybacking on big buzzwords.

So why is it important to have a figurative enemy? A few reasons:

It helps define your “true north

(And maintains a single point of focus.)

Many startups fall victim to the difficult feat of consistent messaging. Your “true north” or focus will often be in flux for months, if not years, when you are starting out. But as soon as you are able to pinpoint your company’s antagonist, your story begins to write itself.

Eventually all public communications and outward messaging align to the consistent point of focus, and all areas of your business will begin to sync up.

It helps frame your business model

If you can say with conviction what you are NOT, it means you can be honest with your customers about what you are. Honesty is the best policy when explaining your business model to potential customers, and staying true to your “problem,” or enemy, can help you do that.

Many companies are packaging open-source tools and libraries into commodity hardware and calling them “big data solutions.” Fake big-data companies love to sell free open source software and take credit for their machine learning libraries. Despite the fact that we build most of our models from scratch, we still have to be honest to our customers, and deliver a business model that disrupts their preconceived perceptions on the costs of big data.

It defines your category

(Before your customers define it for you.)

There is nothing worse than being incorrectly categorized before your company has had a chance to forge its own path in the proper direction. The easiest way for this to happen is by lacking conviction against your enemy and thus flip-flopping between possible areas of business within a given industry.

For example, if you say loud and clear “NO SOFTWARE,” chances are few people will put you in the software category due to lack of understanding what you stand for.

Kerry Liu

Above: Kerry Liu

Like Apple making its enemy “bad design,” starting strong with an established enemy can really set the stage for your company to grow into its own. It will also forcibly hold you accountable. Apple refusing to accept bad design means they are far more susceptible to scrutiny regarding their design each time a new product is launched.

It is important to remember the significance of standing for something to avoid falling for anything. You will garner more respect and hold more clout in an industry when you have stated and stood behind your purpose, beating your enemy and then eventually coming out victorious.

Kerry is currently the CEO of Rubikloud. At Rubikloud we believe the retail analytics stack is going to dramatically change in the next five years. Our mission is to lead this emerging trend and turn retail data into significant revenue opportunities.

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