Dealing with Competitor Anxiety
By the grace of God, 6med is doing alright. Without going into the specifics, we’re at a point where we could potentially make it a full-time thing. We wouldn’t want to, of course, as ‘dropping out of medical school to run a company that does courses for people trying to get into medical school’ doesn’t sound particularly appetising. There’s also probably a point that’ll come very, very quickly where we realise that doing day-to-day admin is super boring and not at all fulfilling. But anyway, what once started as ‘let’s run a handful of courses in the summer holidays to make a bit of cash’ has become something bigger that’s taken over a significant chunk of our lives and identities. And along with the extra customers and revenue have come the anxieties and stresses of running a business while trying to do well in a Medicine degree.
Recently, I’ve found myself spending more and more time worrying about things related to the business. This is quite atypical – I’m not usually one to feel anxious/stressed about much, so it comes as quite a surprise when I get a feeling of… something… deep down and realise it’s because I was playing through a ‘what if?’ scenario in my head. So this post is mostly a way for me to rationalise away the anxieties associated with running the business. I suppose it might also be helpful for a few people who might be in a similar position, or just somewhat interesting for people who’re interested in setting up a startup/business/whatever and might be intrigued by how it feels to be doing that a few years down the line.
Competitor anxiety is probably the biggest one. When 6med was in its fledgling state (back when it was still called ‘Crash Courses’), competitors didn’t worry us in the slightest. We knew we were the newest and youngest kids on the block, and our expectations/hopes for the company were so low that we didn’t care at all that Kaplan were a huge corporation, that Medify was doing well with their online question bank, that Blackstone Tutors had a cool name, that (the now-defunct) BMAT Ready had a (fairly cringeworthy) promo video etc etc. We were totally happy just trying to break into the market and teaching a handful of courses.
But then we got bigger, and became (I think) one of the ‘biggest’ companies in this somewhat niche market. If Google page rank means anything, the only company above us for BMAT and UKCAT course-related search terms is Kaplan, and they’ve been around for almost 100 years (not that Google search has, but oh well). We’re quite happy with this position – we’ve accepted that Kaplan are always going to be big, and even though they charge £300+ for their courses, there’s always going to be the market for parents wanting to give their kids the ‘best’ preparation possible. It makes psychological sense for ‘best’ to be associated with ‘most expensive’, even though that’s (almost certainly) not true in reality.
Unfortunately though, Kaplan aren’t the only competitors. New companies have sprung up in the last few years, with websites that don’t necessarily look like they were designed in the 1990s (which was certainly the case when 6med started up in 2013). Some have even managed to get ‘official partnerships’ with big names like the Royal Society of Medicine, which is quite worrying from our end (and probably quite satisfying from theirs). This rise in competitors within our field is hardly surprising, given that everyone and their dog knows that the barrier to entry is very low, and nowadays anyone can slap together a reasonable-looking website and start advertising their own ‘BMAT preparation course’ or whatever.
Why is any of this a problem? Well, the internal reasoning goes as follows: “I’m worried that these other companies will overtake ours. Then we’ll get no students for our courses, therefore we’ll lose everything, therefore I’ll end up broke”.
1. I’m worried that other companies will overtake ours
The ideal response is probably as follows – So what? Why does it matter if other companies ‘overtake’ ours? Who cares if they get more students than we do? Kaplan probably get more students than we do, but we never get worried about that.
In any case, the medical-application-tuition market is big enough that there’s plenty of room for multiple companies. With 25,000 applicants each year, even if we get overtaken (by whatever metric one cares to use) by other companies, we’ll still likely have a reasonable enough market share to be getting along with.
That leads us to the next anxiety.
2. We’ll get no students for our courses
This is just clearly wrong. Even if other companies overtake ours, we’ll still likely get a large number of students through word-of-mouth advertising alone. That added to the fact that we’ve got online products like BMAT Ninja and (soon) UKCAT Ninja means that we’ll always have some level of market penetration for our courses. So the fear that we’ll get no students is clearly unfounded. Sure, we might get fewer students, but even if that’s the case, this is still ultimately a part-time thing that we’re doing on the side, along with our Medicine careers. It doesn’t matter at all to us, whether we get 2,000 students a year or 500 – running the business is pretty fun, teaching courses and helping students is pretty fun, and even with 500 students (heck, even with 100) we’d still make a decent amount of money (not that money is a particularly large factor in anything).
3. We’ll lose everything and end up broke
Okay, this is slightly exaggerated, but the general sentiment holds true. I’ve already addressed why “we’ll get no students” is probably not accurate, but for the sake of argument, even if we do end up getting no students, that’s not the end of the world at all. As in the previous bit, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, this is ‘just’ a side-project that we were super blessed to be able to turn into a decent business. If we get to the point where we do genuinely have zero students signing up for our courses and zero students signing up for our online resources, it’ll be a good time to call it quits and move on to another side project (my brother, some tech-minded friends and I have a shared Wunderlist to-do list that has 20+ reasonable ideas on it). As someone famous once famously said, “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened”.
Jeffrey Way, the founder of Laracasts (a wonderful resource for learning about the PHP Laravel framework and programming concepts), had an episode of the Laracasts podcast entitled 10 business tips when launching your first app. I was casually listening to the episode while ironing my shirt getting ready for the morning Trauma & Orthopaedics meeting when I heard the following
The guilt is the hardest part… You can’t enjoy being with your family, because in the back of your head, you’re thinking “oh my gosh, if I stop working on this, then somebody will pass me by, and I’m going to lose everything, and then I’m going to go broke and then I’ll be homeless…”
The last bit is somewhat jokey, but that bit of the podcast just resonated so much within me. It sounds utterly ridiculous to say ‘I’m going to lose everything, and then I’ll be broke and then I’ll end up homeless’ but that’s sometimes where the thought process can end up going. In those situations, regaining a sense of perspective in a timely fashion is probably the most important thing. Obviously we won’t end up broke or homeless if the business stops functioning – we’re fortunate enough to be born into reasonably well-off families and backgrounds, with degrees from fantastic universities, and we’ll most likely have no trouble finding jobs in the future. As far as privilege goes, there’s literally less than nothing we can complain about. So whenever anything like this thought even remotely crosses my mind, I try to take a step back and think ‘Life is so great right now, thank God. Even if the business ends, I’ll still have a more-than-solid base and will simply move on to the next fun side-project while doing Medicine’.
So that’s essentially it. Having written this post, I realise that practically all my worries and anxieties about competitors are silly. While these sorts of thoughts will probably still pop into my head from time to time, I now have rational, reasoned responses to them, and so they won’t make me feel quite so bad (if at all). In that sense, the function of this post is fulfilled, and all I can do is hope that you, the reader, found it interesting enough to warrant getting this far.