Competition isn't your enemy. It's your product's secret weapon.
Games have been a constant throughout Arjun Lall’s life.
He attributes his early fondness for computers to games like Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster. As a seventh grader, he coded Pong into his graphing calculator, paving the first stones in his path toward tech. In college, he gamified U.S. politics. Most of the startups he’s worked at have been gaming-centric. This includes his tenure as Director of Product on FarmVille, one of the greatest experiments in online gaming ever.
But Arjun’s since moved onto a different kind of gameplay. The board’s a little bigger. The stakes are considerably higher. The pieces? All of the mobile app companies in the world.
At SurveyMonkey Intelligence, which he co-founded as Renzu, Arjun leads a team of product managers building the most comprehensive database of competitive intelligence available to mobile developers. He’s learned the hard way what it feels like to work at optimistic tech company that is suddenly swept out of play.
Because of this, he argues, competition needs to be a part of every product’s roadmap.
“I use the analogy of a Risk board,” he says. “It would be silly at the beginning of Risk not to survey where all the players are placing their soldiers and get a better understanding of how you fit in.”
There’s a balance to strike, though. Over the course of his career, Arjun has developed a method for navigating this Risk board. It involves mediating the internal competition between product managers, and understanding how to position your product for external competition. Together, these can separate a winning product team from a losing one.
Compared to the precision later in his career, Arjun’s first forays on the Risk board seem kind of lucky. At the very least, their product-market fit owes more to hype than data-savviness.
Along with some other Claremont McKenna students, his first startup endeavor was Fantasy Congress—a site that did for Capitol Hill what fantasy football leagues did for the NFL. The project drummed up a lot of hype, but the students weren’t sure what to do with the lightning they’d bottled. Fantasy Congress was very data-oriented, but it wasn’t necessarily data-driven.
Because of this, the Fantasy Congress struggled with how to scale. Relocating to Washington D.C., the team began to build contract apps for political organizations. But in the nation’s capital, they found a predictable level of gridlock. After its New York Times feature, Fantasy Congress wasn’t exactly taking off.
Eventually, Arjun found his way back to his first passion: games. It was 2008 and Guitar Hero was king of the console. So, for the second time, Arjun tapped into something with a lot of natural buzz. He and some friends created JamLegend, a browser-based game that mimicked Guitar Hero’s gameplay. This experiment netted more interest than the political fantasy league, rocketing to 5 million users.
But as with the earlier experiment, there wasn’t much of a methodology. Arjun was a natural at shipping likable products, but he lacked an ostensible roadmap.
“We put in Google Analytics,” Arjun says. “I would just open up the dashboard and there were some metrics that they placed on the front page of GA—active users, bounce rate, a few things like that. I didn’t really think about it more deeply than, Okay, well, that’s what we need to care about. What I’ve learned now is you really want to focus on actionable metrics.”
That kind of discipline would come, but not at the small music startup.
A savvier player was navigating the Risk board and eyeing JamLegend. Luckily, Zynga turned out to be a friend instead of a foe. In 2011, the gaming giant acquired JamLegend, and soon after Arjun was promoted to Director of Product on the massively popular FarmVille. You may remember it for its annoying Facebook notifications. Arjun remembers it as a chaotic track to becoming data-driven.
The long and winding road
By now, Zynga is as much a parable about the perils of hyper-growth as it is a gaming company. But for those who were there when it was growing explosively, the returns were huge. The company was growing at a breakneck pace and, by nature of being a gaming business, ingesting a lot of user data. It was like a laboratory for scaling. To keep up, its PMs were forced to adopt the kind of data-driven-ness that most of the Valley boasts about.
“Especially after my time at Zynga, I believe in being really disciplined about defining what your hypotheses are and then using data to validate them as much as you can before getting something out the door.”
Not everything can be built. Creative enterprises like FarmVille are successful because of features that delight. They also have a lot of product managers competing to get their feature shipped. Although Arjun was unable to get in the weeds and assess the net-value of every feature, he could influence the culture in a way that achieved the same effect.
“A director of product doesn’t necessarily have time to go into the database and start typing SQL,” he says. “Nonetheless, it certainly helps if a director of product can really dig into the data. If you don’t understand how the data works, how you measure things, and what the important metrics are for your product to a very detailed level, it makes things a lot harder. You need that depth of knowledge to level up your team.”
Leveling the FarmVille team up meant aligning everyone on how features would be prioritized. The product org was internally competitive—if a PM’s hypothesis could be validated by data, that feature would ship. Say someone really wanted their virtual horse paddock built. Arjun would add a horse paddock to his product roadmap if the numbers bore it out.
You couldn’t add a horse paddock just because FarmVille seemed like it needed one.
“The critical piece many miss is breaking down the roadmap by looking at each individual item and asking, What is the goal and what metric will this drive?” Arjun says. “Taking the time to be really disciplined about using data to justify every roadmap item is essential. Since no team has unlimited resources you need to figure out which racehorses you think are the most likely to succeed and prioritize appropriately against those.”
This kind of data rigor explains why Zynga was not another gaming company, but the gaming company. A company that could buy a massive compound in San Francisco and get namechecked alongside the most popular consumer platforms.
But if internal competition at Zynga was thriving, its external positioning was misaligned. Their roadmaps failed to anticipate where the competition would come from.
“When it came to Facebook gaming, we were the dominant player,” Arjun says. “Looking at our competition on Facebook didn’t make as much sense as paying close attention to our customers. It’s easy to just kick back and believe that nothing can topple you. Zynga is a cautionary tale, because the competition didn’t come from other Facebook games. It came from mobile. There was a platform shift.”
But Arjun didn’t accept Zynga’s loss as his own. He calculated his next move.
The problem was that nobody had competitive intelligence on the mobile space. Teams like Arjun’s had developed sophisticated sciences for evaluating their own metrics. But in doing so, they might’ve missed a reshuffling occurring beyond Zynga’s redbrick ramparts.
Who were the big players in mobile and what were their numbers like?
Along with Abhinav Agrawal and Jason Tomlinson, Arjun left Zynga and co-founded Renzu, a company that would answer that question. Renzu developed an analytics platform for getting competitive insights on the mobile ecosystem. And not long after incorporating, Renzu proved its market mettle when it was acquired by SurveyMonkey. Since then, it’s been rebranded as SurveyMonkey Intelligence.
For Arjun, it’s still important for PMs to “compete” with one another and justify their features. But product teams also need to be creative about benchmarking themselves against competitors.
“You want to think about competition as early as possible,” Arjun says. “Think about your market, and deeply understand your competitive positioning. Being obsessed with your competition is never healthy, but being blind to it also makes no sense.”
It comes back to having a dynamic and well-built roadmap. Competition is another piece of that. It needs to be an input whenever the team re-evaluates its roadmap.
“Some product teams are probably evaluating their roadmap on a very frequent basis and others do it once a quarter,” Arjun says. “At the point where you’re making critical decisions about what to build and what to prioritize, competitive data can be used to make more informed decisions.”
As in the game of Risk, however, there is a drawback to being overly competitive. While ignoring it is foolish, using other companies as your north star has shipwrecked many startups.
“Being in the Valley for a while, I’ve observed many companies that see competition doing something new and say, Oh that’s got to be the thing we need too.”
The key is weighting competitive intelligence against the rest of your internal data. It should be a healthy feedback loop, but not to the point of distraction. Arjun offers push notifications as a simple example.
“Maybe you see that a competitor has recently added more notifications and their engagement is a bit higher,” he says. “That gives you another data point to say, Hey, we believe if we do this we’ll probably be able to move engagement up. The best case scenario is where you can leverage competition as another input to weigh on your roadmap.”
It’s telling that the first program Arjun built was Pong, and now he’s thinking in terms of Risk. His product philosophy has broadened to a full 360 degrees.
One of the most enjoyable things about talking with Arjun is that he doesn’t oversell his product. Any startup that wants to go beyond product-market fit will need to consider the competition—he’s pretty confident about that. But it’s not a panacea.
“As you reach product-market fit, you might start to realize who the lead horses are, and who are becoming the threatening players,” he says. “Some of the other players might actually become allies. Someone you thought was insignificant might make a big move. You don’t know how exactly the game’s going to play out.”
The surest way to outlast your opponents is to verify hypotheses about your own hand, as well as theirs. Every game board carries the threat of dumb luck. But by vigilantly reassessing each input on the roadmap, PMs can minimize that kind of risk.
“In an ideal world, everything can have a high priority and not conflict with each other,” he says. “That’s never the case. You have to makes sure you put your strongest player at each spot and that may mean some tough decisions. But that’s probably the best way to do it.”