Podcast 43: How to compete in an unlevel playing field?

Welcome to a Question of Gamification, a podcast where gamification expert An Coppens answers your questions.

Today’s question is

How can we compete in an unlevel playing field?

Today’s question was triggered based on a number of conversations, I was having online and offline with different people and also across different sectors. So I don’t think it is actually limited to the gamification world.

In fact, I think as side hustlers, unlevel playing fields happen and exist in every walk of life, whether you’re a builder and you’re coming up against the little man in a van and rogue builders without certification, etc., or whether you’re in learning design and you come up against people who just basically talk to video or add their PowerPoint deck into a rapid authoring tool and sell it off as amazingly fantastic courses. You will have all of those.

In gamification, we have quite a lot of Indies, a lot of small design houses, and I think everyone has to start somewhere. So I applaud them for starting their business, its where I started too. But we also have a lot of people who are in day jobs by reputable institutes, reputable organisations, often researchers, professors, or people working for in jobs that they don’t like or which they are holding on to, for the security of the wage package.

So it’s interesting that we come up against them. It’s also interesting to find an approach on how to compete with it. For me as a female founder, for some time, this really annoyed me. It was like, why are they not just sticking to their day job?

I was focusing on the fact that in my eyes they already had a main stream of income so why do they want more? I had to find a way of, I guess, rationalising and finding a strategy on how to deal and compete with or against them. Or make peace in my mind that they are there, and they are there to stay. They’re not going to go away.

For every one that then becomes a real business. There are a hundred who will never reappear and should never make it. I knew I had to find a way of dealing with it and it had to be a positive way of dealing with it, instead of getting angry all the time, which with social media in the picture, is not always easy.

Know what you stand for and what you don’t stand for

What I will say is that when you were competing against many side hustlers, is that you need to be clear on what you are and what you’re not. That needs to be very clear to your target market. I would also encourage you to challenge side hustlers or rogue traders and pull them up on things that they are spreading about your industry that you do not find are so savoury or sustainable in the long run.

For those of you in a side hustle, appreciate that for people that do pay fair wages and don’t have unlimited access to free software tools that there are different realities out there. Keep that in mind when you make predictions about pricing and what should, and shouldn’t be done. Pricing, when you have access to cheap or free resources is a whole different ball game than when you pay market rates.

As a customer, if you are researching who to do business with, look out for whether they are full time working on this work only, or do they have a day job? And if that’s okay with you, then absolutely go for it. B what are their values like? And then when you are shopping around, if you want the cheapest price, the indie will always win the quality and the range and the scalability that they can offer may not be there. You choose and you buy what you choose for as well.

How can you deal with competition in a healthy way?

Value-based positioning

Well, first of all, it’s coming up with your values. And for me, I always wanted to make a name for myself and encourage other women too, to join the gamification industry. I mean, for me, the reason to set up Gamification Nation was to bring a female and feminine voice to the industry. When, as I started in 2012, it was pretty much dominated by white, young men and no offence to the men. They were great. I learned a lot from them. But I also felt there was a need and a space for a more feminine approach and the feminine voice. That’s the reason why I set up Gamification Nation. And as somebody nicknamed me at a conference, yeah, you became the queen of the Gamification Nation. I can live with that. I’ll be the queen of my little nation and, that’s fine with me.  I thought it was a funny touch.

But what we also stand for and what we also value is to actually build a diverse and inclusive team and also to create diverse and inclusive designs. I’m not saying that side hustlers don’t do that, but as a company, you have much more klout to put your name and your whole set of resources behind that.

The raise the game pledge

For example, we took the UKIE “raise the game” pledge. UKIE is the UK interactive entertainment industry body, where a lot of the games companies of the UK game associations, as e-sports, et cetera, would link together. We took the pledge to raise the game, and that means that we’re actually actively looking to make sure that we are diverse and inclusive.

For me, diverse and inclusive is a spectrum. It’s a spectrum of first and foremost gender for me because that’s one of my reasons for being in the industry. Making it easier for young girls to find other young girls or other girls or women that they can look up to and speed that road model that basically has paved the parkway for them to go after what they want to do.

I mean, I wanted to be a game designer as a kid. I was eight when I sat down first and I was told under no certain terms, there is no money in games and look at it now, it’s the biggest moneymaking industry in the UK. So, you know, let’s just, let’s just park that one. But, diversity and inclusion is about many more things.

So it’s about ability. It’s about race. It’s about language. It’s about religion, belief systems. It’s about creating an atmosphere and a working environment where everyone has a place and everybody can feel that they can belong. Everybody’s ideas, and thoughts are heard. Whether they are implemented is a different story because they still have to make sense within the constructs of either a game or the business.

So there may still be reasons why you do things a certain way. But when we design, we also want to make sure that our designs are as inclusive as possible.

Align messaging and values

I believe that when you trade on values and when you position yourself as a value based business, That you also open up your marketing and your messaging to something that people can buy into and you’ll gain clients that are attracted to that and you’ll also repel clients or send clients to a completely different provider because they don’t like what you stand for. And that’s perfectly okay. I’d rather work with the ones that buy into what we’re trying to achieve. Rather than the ones that are out for the quick buck or encourage hate of all kinds because I think that’s the counter opposite from inclusion and diversity. A culture of hate and discrimination, which I don’t think benefits us as a planet and most people and creatures living here.

So, yeah, that’s my two pence on values, I guess. But, value based positioning is the first thing I would look at. It’s  like, what do you stand for, what are you trying to bring to the market.  As a side hustler, whilst you may be you and present yourself a certain way, you still have to be mindful of your day job.   You still have to be mindful of the other things you stand for, and that may cause its own side effects.

Pricing as a differentiator

The other parts that I would look at is your pricing. What does your pricing tell you? Because people that are price shoppers, will always look for the quick bargain, the cheap deal. Those people will go with the indie, no matter what, and they’ll go the cheapest way.

It will often cost them more in the long run because we have had people come from very inexperienced designs to us and say, well, could you fix this? Then we have to start all over and immediately you’re talking five figures to simply fix the damn thing.

When you’re shopping around, look at what can you actually realistically get for your budget?

Over the lockdown period, I was involved in several networking groups, some going way back to my roots in the Irish market. I received regular requests for gamification or game design. Typically the scenario would go a bit like this, could you do this, I’m a one-man band, blah, blah, blah, this is what I want to make and create, etc. And Whilst all the ideas were fabulous, fantastic and amazing, most of the time while as soon as we said, well, it would cost you this much. They nearly fell into a coma. It wasn’t COVID induced, it was a price induced coma. So, we know that for certain market segments, we’re really not the player on the business that can deliver for you.

Being clear on how your pricing deters certain people away from you and attracts others toward you is important to understand and to note. For all the, the ones who are in day jobs and at the same time making claims about how pricing should be done in an industry. I would ask you to consider and make sure that it is actually ethical for the industry to promote what you’re saying as sustainable.  I also believe that side hustlers are essential for competition and that they are providing a service to the market segments we can’t serve. But if their standards are perceived as the norm, then I also believe that they can do untold damage. It can raise expectations, especially if they are seen as some kind of authority and big thinker in the field.

You then rule out, real players who pay fair wages, and full license fees for the software they use to develop things, et cetera, We cannot compete with those that have basically an army of students to work for them. Free access to free software because you’re on an educational license or other, we cannot compete on the same level.

Long term sustainability

What we can do is offer a long-term sustainable service, because what we also see is those that are looking for price are usually transactional buyers. And what we tend to do is we build long term relationships with our clients. We have some clients that we have worked with for four to five years, and those are the ones in lockdown that basically helped us out in writing up proposals, or in some cases gave us some consulting work to work on. So that the business, actually is still there by the time their bigger projects, return to market.

Most of the ones that we worked with on a price shopping deal have vanished. And they’re not likely to come back. In fact, some contracts we’ve had to commercially say no to, because we cannot deliver them for the price they want to pay.

There comes a point where you have to say, well, actually if I have to pay all my people and deliver to the quality that we like to deliver, producing work we can be proud of is one of our core values in the company, then, you know, we have to walk away and walk away fast. I guess the lesson learned for me is to walk away faster next time.

Pricing is a funny one. It’s psychological.

Whatever currency you’re in, I can’t compete on price. I had somebody ask me a price last week and, basically, they said, well, actually this company can do it for that and this is what they quoted.  I said, well, look, then you have to go with them because I actually cannot compete on that price.  And, you know, the lady who was actually asking the question, appreciated my honesty and got her, got her answer. It’s something I would probably never have said five years ago.

Level up your clients

These are things you learn as you grow in business as well, that there are people that fit your level of business and your level of quality or level of values.  It means that you have to level up your clients and that’s a harder journey for most startups and for most companies is that you have to go from having nobody in the team and taking any project to find where you are best and deliver your best work and who you work with best. For us, the best work that we have done has been with the bigger organisations who are willing to put a five, six-figure budget on the table to get what they really wanted.

We are not quick fixes. If you do want that, it will be templated and comes out of a kit box. It’s as simple as that. There are tools that allow us to do some things cheaper than others. There are tools on the market that allow us to do good value services as well. It doesn’t mean that rules out the lower end of the market, but it’s not our sweet spot.  It’s not our best place.

To level up your clients and levelling up means that you have to start networking in the spaces where the new level clients are, that you start having conversations with people that also deliver to that space and that you are seen as reputable, valuable and authoritative in that space.

That happens by sharing some of your knowledge, by creating value for these people. And yeah, that’s not easy. That’s a long-term game. That’s a long strategy or a slow strategy as they say, but then. I never set up my business to be a fly by night nor to jump on the next best thing.

I mean, for gamification, for those in the learning space, we saw pretty much everybody especially platforms jumping on gamification because it was a thing.   Then when you scratched underneath the surface half of them, didn’t know what it really meant. Most of them thought, oh, we have added points and we have added badges and we have added leaderboards and “Hey Presto”, we’ve got gamification!  And whilst to some extent, that’s true, you also did none of the groundwork that’s necessary for it to stick and make it work.

If you want that, you can have that and that’s now available pretty much cheap out of any standard platform. So, if that’s what you want. Yes, we can deliver that. And we won’t charge you an arm and a leg. It depends on how many other systems you have to make it talk nice with. But what we would say and we will always let you know, is that if you want gamification to work, to let us at least do user research and adapt the journey of the experience for your customer, for your employee, to make sure that it actually fits who you want to engage and influence. That’s my two pence worth about the cheap systems let’s just say.

Levelling up your clients is a long term game. With it comes earning your pride and position in an industry as well. It takes work to get known in the field. To be an upstart in the field, took me only a matter of months. But to be known and to be seen as credible has taken a few years. There would still be people that now after me being eight years or nine years consistently in the industry would still say, oh well, you know, she doesn’t this, or she doesn’t that, you know but that shows as much about them as it does about me, I guess.

Levelling of your clients. Work at it all the time, every day, every week, every month, showcase your best work. If it’s not good enough, don’t show it. If you can’t show it, obviously don’t show it. A lot of what we do is employee gamification focused or serious games that are aimed at employees often for very secretive bodies. Which means we can’t show it. And some of it is absolutely fantabulous I would say, and other stuff I am glad we can’t show. That’s I suppose the way of every business. We have projects that we are delighted and proud to play with others that we just do because they pay the bills.

Strategic positioning

Then, strategic positioning is another point of competition and both values and pricing give input to strategic positioning.  The questions you really want to answer are: are you an elite business who only deals with a few really top paying clients? Are you a bit more mid-range? And what does that mean? Or are you going for the lower end of the market?

Having a clear position and choosing that and sort of saying, Hey, this is what we’re going for is putting your stake in the market and saying, this is what we’re standing for, this is what we’re aiming for. For us, that has evolved over time, but we know our sweet spot is with the corporate sector. Ideally in the European market, so the UK and Europe is where we do our best work because we understand the culture. We understand what’s living. We have local experience from several countries. We have inputs from team members from across the European nations. Every time we’ve stepped out of that, and especially with North American markets, we’ve had to overcome some cultural boundaries, the same when we’ve dealt with the Middle East, we definitely had to overcome boundaries and understanding, the same with Asia. So sometimes the local person is the better person. For us, the corporate sector in the EU is still a fantastic and massive market. So it’s not limiting us.

We still take clients globally. Don’t get me wrong. I always wanted to be global. Actually my ultimate dream is that a super nation structure becomes possible. Allowing as an organisation that you become a global organisation and that you proportion your taxes and where you pay them based on where the business has come from. I think that to me would be my ideal world model of trading and doing business. Because that way you not only benefit where you do business but also where the business came from. I think it should go both ways and that’s something I want to be solved, but may not happen in, probably, my lifetime.  Maybe, maybe not. I’d love for someone to take the ball on that and run with it and set up some super state architecture that goes above nations and is to truly global. It would require a lot of trade agreements to make it work, but maybe it’s business that makes the drive for that change, because obviously politicians worldwide are not seeing that picture, especially in the periods that we’re in.

Know your market

Strategic positioning is important, whether that is your beachhead industries namely going after an industry segment, whether that’s going after a specific market size, a specific type of slice of the pie. I come from learning and the HR space. So my natural ability was actually to work with people in that field.  Why? Because I spoke their language, they understood that I understood them, their problems, etc. We also have done work in marketing. My first degree was marketing. The question is what do you fit with the most?

We still to this day, probably market more towards the employee segment of the market than the customer segment.  But we do work in both. But pick one. It doesn’t mean you don’t do business with any other industry or any other market segment, but pick one, define it and make sure that you solve their problems really accurately and well. Do your research.

Researching your market space is super important and something that most startups do, especially if they’re looking for investment, because they have to, because the investors want to see that you know your market.  But know your competition and know what your buyers would spend their budget on outside of what you deliver. So for us to do gamification in the learning space, the budget of a learning and development manager, goes to authoring tools, learning designers. It goes to LMS’s. It goes to webinar tools, it goes to a whole range of things that you’re also competing with, but you need to understand how you fit in there.

You need to be able to say what’s the added value you bring over and above these tools. Do you play nice with these tools? Because that’s the first question people ask, can you please confirm that your work in learning is SCORM or X API compliant so that you can link to goodness knows what kind of learning management system. There are always questions on that, and it is something that I think you ought to know.

In terms of checking out your competition, understand what they are offering, understand what their strong points are and where you are different.

As a female founder, I have always stood out for that reason. I’m not the only female founder in our market space. I’m also not the only female founder in the learning space. There are a few people operating in this market that have come with an equally valid background as I have. It then becomes a case of, do we fit with one another? Is it a case of we choose you over and above other providers?

You do not get invited to the tender process if you aren’t known. It is a relationship-building process, who do you know, in the organisation, etc.  It then becomes a case of networking with the right people in the right places.  They get to see you as their provider of choice, and you could be one of a few invited if they have a tender process. It’s positioning yourself, understanding what you are strong at, but also understanding what your weak at in comparison to your competition. I know some of our competition is super strong in the marketing space and is probably better at it than we are.

So let them do that and let’s not compete in that space. If other companies come to us and we fair and square, win the deal, we will still put our best foot forward and create what we think is the best thing for the market.

Have a repeatable process

Have a process that is relevant to your market and can prove that you can deliver.

We have a process which we used to make public, and we stopped doing that because that meant that every single competitor in the market basically copied and pasted it. We now have that to show to our clients in a deck and we explain how it works, but it’s no longer visible on the website.

If you have a framework that sets you apart, it can work, but don’t become the one framework organisation.  Because I also do see that as a weakness, a one framework organisation typically has one hammer, AKA their framework and that hammer fits every problem. And in my experience, there are many frameworks that can fix many problems, but it’s typically not one that actually ultimately fixes it. It’s usually a combination of several that makes it the best solution for a client. Just be willing to deviate, is what I would say.

And yeah, research, research, research, understand your market, understand your weaknesses, understand your strengths, understand your opportunities. Look out for your buyer, know their ideal profile, know where they hang out, what they spend on and understand what those things have to offer. That way you know what you have to compete and compare with too.

Can we compete with side hustlers?

Absolutely we can, but it’s not a level playing field. Just like the builder that delivers quality work cannot compete with the guy who just rocks up, throw some shit together and hopes that it stands up and stays standing.

It’s a different ball game. It’s a different market segment. If anything, for those of you who are very sensitive on price be mindful of what it is you want and what you’re willing to tolerate as a failure, because your tolerance to cheap and your tolerance to maybe not quite perfect are linked, but know that it will also have an impact on the industry that you’re trying to buy from.

I know procurement people, the world over, are trying to get the best deal for their company. And I appreciate that, but they also have some basic quality requirements that usually come with that package. And those, I don’t think you should negotiate on. And when you’re negotiating on price, that’s often exactly where you’re taking it.

So I hope, and I wish that in the gamification and the serious game space, we can create a sustainable industry for all kinds of people. In my business, I want to be able to afford to pay a fair wage and keep my team and business, as well as pay for the licenses of the software and the tools that we use, because that will keep another company going.

I think having seen and experienced one recession 10 years ago, and now another one and the very significant impact of the whole COVID-19 situation. I think as businesses, we need to stick together and pull each other out. We need to give each other, a hand up or a handout. I know I have had help from other people in the gamification space. I have had some clients give us a hand up to keep going, but it’s not plentiful. And I think we should do more of it.

I hope that this message gives you encouragement or it gives whoever listens to this a bit of encouragement to just go for it. Whatever you do, do your groundwork, set your ground rules, and then give it your best shot.

The best ones will remain in business, the fly by nights will be fly by nights. And that will always be the case. There will always be side hustlers. And for the side hustlers, I ask you, please do not make sweeping statements about industry pricing standards because that damages, if it is not sustainable for all in the long run.

At this point, I rest my case. I hope I’ve answered the question. Can we compete? Yes, we can. And I’ve given you a few hints and strategies on how to do that.

Thank you for listening. If you liked the episode, please share it and comment and review. I would appreciate your feedback. Thank you for listening.


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