In the digital business space, sustaining a competitive advantage over your competitors can spell the difference between success and bankruptcy.
In a way, the e-commerce industry has managed to take one of the loftiest ideals of capitalism: competition drives innovation. The modern world is all about unique products that target specific pain points, but because technological advancements in the 21st century have allowed most companies, both multinationals and startups, the same access to innovative tools, uniqueness, and competence are no longer enough.
This is where the sustainable competitive advantage comes in, and how some companies are changing business using modern strategies.
What is Sustainable Competitive Advantage?
In a nutshell, sustainable competitive advantage refers to a company’s assets, skills, or practices that are both difficult for competitors to duplicate and difficult for them to exceed, and are scalable to the company’s growth in such a way that the resources required to maintain these advantages are marginally (if not infinitesimally) smaller than the profits they bring in. It’s one of the key investments business owners need to make if they want to thrive in the digital world.
How Can Companies Maintain a Sustainable Competitive Advantage?
Creating a competitive advantage is one thing, but sustaining it in such a way that it can continuously outperform in a competitive market, adapt to rapid technological advances, and remain a few steps ahead of the competition? That’s the kind of business strategy that can make or break a company.
While there’s no one way to maintain a sustainable competitive advantage, many analysts have boiled it down to three essential components: expanding the company, having better access to resources, and having the right knowledge base.
Sustainable Competitive Advantage: The Bigger, The Better
Regardless of industry, the market will always be a finite space, which means the more you space you occupy, the better. It’s not just about monopolizing your customer base: the bigger your company is, the less inclined competitors will be with going toe-to-toe and will focus on their share of the market instead. After all, not every David and Goliath story ends the same way: more often than not, the giants win.
But committing your company towards aggressive expansionist policies means long-term (and often irreversible) investments built on both growing your own company and ensuring that your competitors remain small.
This is, of course, a high-risk-high-reward move: if you succeed, you will be preempting any and every move your competitors make which will allow you to take home a nominally larger slice of the pie. If you fail, however, whether it was because of fluctuating market conditions, environmental changes, mismanagement of assets, or just bad luck, you’ll see the value of your investments erode quickly, and it may even set you back farther. But hey: nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Sustainable Competitive Advantage: Exclusive Access to Resources
But if you’re incapable (or unwilling) to invest in expansion, then your company will need to have access to premium resources, the more exclusive the access, the better. A company can remain profitable, and in fact even lead their particular industry from a smaller niche, if they offered products or services that even their larger competitors cannot beat. This is a case of quality beating quantity.
Of course, for this to work, and for exclusive access to resources to be sustainable, it needs to meet a couple of conditions: first, accessing these resources must be secured in such a way that the terms you acquired it for are and always will be better than the terms competitors will get it for in the future. Obviously, the goal is exclusivity, but barring that, a company should ensure that they get the better deal.
And secondly, the advantage of having better or exclusive access to resources must be enforced. After all, it’s your only weapon against larger companies, so protecting this particular asset of yours is crucial. By hook or by crook (or by binding contracts and ownership deals), always secure your advantageous terms.
Sustainable Competitive Advantage: Knowledge is Power That Leads to Success
Your competitors can own a majority of the market shares, or have exclusive access to the best resources, but if they don’t have the know-how to fully utilize their advantages, then your company needs to. Knowledge, after all, is power, and in the business world, research and development are what pave the way for every other business process, whether it’s production, logistics, marketing, even HR. Investing in making the most out of your team’s talents is a great way to pioneer certain practices that your competitors will probably never think of. Yes, sometimes the giants win, but sometimes, you can outsmart them, too.
Having a superior knowledge base is crucial to maintaining a competitive advantage over your competitors, especially if its knowledge on beneficial practices that other competitors are not privy to. In certain industries, imitating market leaders is key to outperforming competitors, but they won’t be able to imitate something they don’t know how to implement.
Other companies can be bigger and have better materials, but if your company has the best production or process practices, then you remain a threat, and therefore, you remain profitable despite your other disadvantages.
But here’s the thing about using knowledge as a competitive advantage, and a sustainable one at that: it has to be exclusive. The powerful role of data in business growth is no secret, so your particular practices must be kept confidential to prevent other people, who might have better advantages, from utilizing it against you in the market. It cannot be divulged outside of your company, at the risk of someone seizing this knowledge and leveraging it for their benefit.
Building a Sustainable Competitive Advantage
Of course, the three key components of sustainable competitive advantage that we listed here aren’t mutually exclusive; more often than not, these factors are intersectional, and in fact, having all three by your side is the best way to create an advantage over your competitors that is sustainable throughout the years.
Again, there is no one way to get ahead of the competition, but having these three factors in mind while creating your business strategy is a good way to achieve a head-start in the market, as long as you get to it first.