product moats

Companies sometimes refer to the barrier to real competition with them as a moat. Things that increase the size of the moat are generally seen as valuable, and things that decrease it are seen as (at best) risky. Shipping new features feels like it’s increasing the moat because just look at all the time and effort it took. There’s just one problem.

Features aren’t a moat.

John Gruber often rips on Samsung’s cloning of iPhone design. My takeaway is always the flaws in the details. No clone is perfect, and the imperfections multiply with complexity. But copying sidestepped a bunch of R&D costs, and so they captured marketshare at a lower price point with razor thin margins.

Jason Fried talks about competitors divorcing form from rationale. You can copy someone’s website or app, but you lack the research and context that got them there, so you can only continue copying or making worse decisions from there. It puts you at a longterm strategic disadvantage even if you have short-term success with it.

When a company stops having novel ideas and instead just tries to make nice clones of competitors, inertia starts to shift.

The stories about Slack’s recent acquisition by Salesforce follows a similar narrative. Slack when from 9 to 12 million customers in the previous 4 years. But Microsoft showed up and photocopied it into Teams as a freebie, and exceeded 100 million customers in the same period. The pressures of the stock market perversely made Slack pay in “value” for having the internal knowledge (and taste) to build a superior product that less people were convinced to use. Agreeing to be purchased by Salesforce effectively shelters them from their market disadvantages.

Clearance pricing overwhelms any marginal feature or design disparity. Sales channels gate-kept by huge teams and personal relationships do the same. So does hiring a bigger team of engineers with the directive to copy. It’s not a moat if the tides of enterprise or the pockets of investors can roll right over the top of it like the tides.

The only real moat any company can count on are its people & values. Yeah, the “soft” stuff. The things it’s hardest to measure & communicate, and the things therefore least valued by the market. It’s a helluva paradox: You need to invest the most in the immeasurable and trust people to sustain yourself in a market that demands you do the opposite.

But any company that doesn’t is destined for the sea.