Providing language training online? Here's why you shouldn't copy the competition (to modify so not exact same)

I was listening to Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, talk at Web Summit earlier this month and what he explained about competition really surprised me.  His message was so relevant to us and many of our online language training customers that I wanted to share it.

Have you found yourself obsessing about what the competition is doing? I know I have.

Des was really good at framing competition and positioning. 

I'll do my best to explain this below.

Framing the competition

"Now if you have any degree with any kind of success you get rewards with this phenomenal thing called competition.  When you think about your competition, it's important to understand that it's not just the people that look exactly like you."

You have three types of competitors.  Direct competitors. They do the same job in the same way as you do. Secondary competitors. They do the exact same job in a different way. Indirect competitors. They do a different job but they conflict with the job you do for your customers.

So putting this in context, if you're in online language training, it might look like this:

- Direct competitors: Other language training companies offering live online synchronous training
- Secondary competitors: Other online language providers offering live in-person language training
- Indirect competitors: Language apps, peer-to-peer learning platforms

The dangers of following someone else

With that frame in mind, he vividly described the danger of copying your competition with a metaphor which I found super helpful.

Imagine, you started selling gourmet gelato on a popular beach. It's a hit and people love it. You build a wonderful reputation for beautifully presented, high-quality gelato.

But success brings competition and another store opens up down the other side of the beach. They sell cheaper scoop ice-cream from a generic brand and some of the beach-goers start going to them.

You are effectively doing the same "job" as your competitor but in a different way.


You're concerned...What do you do?

The temptation is to copy and start offering a few cheap ice-cream flavours for kids.

Des did a wonderful job of explaining why this is a bad idea.

Let me do my best to explain.

If you start offering generic ice-cream next to your premium gelato, you start looking like your competitor.  Little by little, you'll become so similar to your competitors that customers will be confused about what sets you apart.  The situation will get worse when more competitors join in.

As Des says,

 "Beware prioritising feature requests that make you look more like your competitors".



Alternatively, if you double-down on what you originally set out to do. You'll stand-out more and more as competitors battle for the centre. If you've got a great product and solve a problem for your customers, you'll find it easier and easier to explain why you're different and better.

So if we relate this back to online language training, what do you do that's unique and better than anyone else?

How does this relate to online language training?

Maybe you offer live online language lessons and what has set you apart from others if the quality of teaching, ease of use and impeccable customer service.

You know you're not the only company that provides language training online.  You know that a company has a lot of different options. They can invite a teacher to visit their office regularly to do live in-person sessions. They can buy licenses for a self-study app. A company can also decide to do nothing.

So what would you do?

Would you next try offering online language training + in-person language training + provide some content through an LMS? This would help you match a customers check-list but now your team is split between recruiting online and in-person teachers. You're having to deal with the logistics of sending in-person teachers regularly to companies spread throughout the city or the region. You've either hired and added further responsibilities to your curriculum to provide content for in-person classes and self-paced courses. You've also now invested in an LMS, are needing to train your team on how to use it and finding that it's fast to create bad-designed courses but making engaging content is really hard.

How will your customers view you? You're now like the others. You offer everything but everything is pretty average. There's nothing particularly different between you and your compeitors so why choose you...other than maybe price.

An alternative is to double-down on what makes you unique. You focus your team on only hiring the best teachers, investing in teacher training so that they're successful...maybe even upgrade from a web-conferencing system to a virtual classroom software purpose-built for live language teaching ;)

You would be more likely to have a clear, unique message and can defend position against other competitors that try to do everything. You can convincingly argue that competitors don't offer the quality or live learning experience that you do and even though you're more expensive than competitors, you're worth it because company employees learn 10% faster and can communicte 10% better and are waste less work-time getting to class since they can do it from their laptop.



I realise his may be a simplification but I found the premise to be really interesting and can apply it to our own experience when I first joined LearnCube.

LearnCube's experience

We heard that our "biggest" competitor was going to switch from Flash to a WebRTC enabled virtual classroom like ours. They had far more features from large group class options to video-recording.  Were we in trouble? Nope. Turns out that owners, teachers and learners love how simple our UX is without so many 'nice-to-have' features.  Instead of copying our competitors with server side video-recording, we're trying to solve the job of QA/learner review better and cheaper through auto-transcriptions of each class.

You'll have your own angle and trying to match competitors feature-for-feature will not magnify that uniqueness.

Des summed this up,


"We need to much more like them will soon turn into we need to be very different from them"

What do you think?