The traditional goal of corporate strategy is to obtain a sustainable competitive advantage. However, this paradigm is outdated in the fast-moving globalized world we live in today. Instead, firms should consider their business models flowing from one transient competitive advantage into another.
What is a sustained competitive advantage?
A sustained competitive advantage includes everything that allows a firm to meet its customers’ needs better than competitors or substitutes. It consists of any attributes of the product sold, or service offered that the customer values highly, the perceived value of your brand, the business operating and profit model, etc.
By definition, a sustained competitive advantage is sufficiently strong, unique, and inimitable. That allows the firm to indefinitely fend off competitors vying for the same customers, discourage new entrants from entering the market, and prevent customers from considering any available substitutes.
The sustained competitive advantage is often described as an economic moat, similar to the deep and wide trench around a castle. In this parallel, the castle is your business, and the size of your moat determines how well your firm can protect its business.
In the past, firms would search for this sustained competitive advantage by deeply analyzing a target market, its customers, and the existing supply chain. Once a potential competitive advantage was uncovered, the firm would go to market and do everything possible to turn the advantage into a sustained advantage.
What is a transient competitive advantage?
In a globalized world, barriers to entry have lowered significantly. So, your position in the market with a competitive advantage is exposed to many more players than before. A threat can now be mounted from any country, not just known players in your vicinity.
Furthermore, the rapid increase in information flow and the digital world also exposes these potential disruptive threats to investment markets. Capital has increased visibility on attractive opportunities and can deploy resources to go after them if necessary.
The transitive competitive advantage distinguishes itself in that it is, by definition, not indefinite but limited in time. This significantly affects how a firm should approach ensuring its long-term success.
With a traditional sustained competitive advantage, the assumption is that a competitive advantage can be sustained indefinitely. So, the firm is primarily concerned with reinvesting in the economic moat around its castle to protect its business. The best firms can dig the deepest and largest trenches and, therefore, can protect their business indefinitely.
With a transient competitive advantage, the assumption is that no competitive edge can sustain forever. Therefore, the firm is no longer focused on protecting the existing economic moat at all costs but on the continuous transformation process.
The focus on transformation shifts the firm’s priority from protecting the economic moat to managing the rise and demise of competitive advantages.
How should a transient competitive advantage be managed?
We outline six distinct phases of the transient competitive advantage paradigm. We differentiate the phases from the perspective of McGrath’s “Transient Waves,” Damodaran’s “Corporate Lifecycle,” Christensen’s “Innovation Cycle,” and Ulrich’s “MOE Organization.”
Phase 1 – Launch of Disruptive Start-Up Team
The first phase of the transient advantage wave begins with identifying a new business opportunity and the decision to mobilize resources to capture it.
In this phase, the team is small. It operates like a start-up, focusing on developing a product that gets a well-defined job done better than anything else currently available. The identified opportunity can take many shapes, including:
- Addressing a market need for which demand far exceeds supply
- Low-end disruption in a market where an existing product or service overserves a significant portion of the customers, and therefore there is an opportunity to better serve the customer with a lower-cost business model.
- New market disruption addresses under-served customers with a more suited product or service offering.
The management is focused on its vision and aims to deeply understand the job to be done.
The team leader is a visionary who can tell a compelling and plausible business story with potential upside for huge profits. The leader must connect the dots between the business opportunity, how the product addresses this opportunity, and what business model can capture the value created. The strength of the story will draw employees and investors to the vision.
The visionary is surrounded by RD innovators and out-of-the-box thinkers who are comfortable with experimentation and iteration and have a fundamental belief in the positive outcome of the project. The RD innovator’s priority is to turn the business idea into a feasible prototype that can be brought to market.
At this point in the business lifecycle, the revenue growth is non-existent, the operational cash flow is negative, and the reinvestment needs are high. Since the business is not generating any surplus cash, there can be no dividends returned to the shareholder. Also, there is no money to pay interest on the debt. Therefore, financing should be done exclusively with equity.
Phase 2 – Ramp Up of Disruptive Young Growth Team
The second phase of the transient advantage wave takes the working prototype to market. It aims to scale the business by turning the business opportunity into a revenue stream.
In this phase, the team remains small. Still, it adds market-oriented capabilities such as marketing and sales and operational-oriented capabilities such as supply chain management.
The management is focused on its vision and aims to find the right customers for its new product or service.
The team leader is a pragmatist (not a purist) who stays consistent in words and action with the business story that launched the business. The leader’s primary focus is to ensure the team remains focused on developing a disruptive product that “gets the job done” and finds customers who “need to get that job done.” At the same time, make the compromises required to ensure market viability.
A common mistake is that the business team pivots too quickly away from the business idea to address the initial customers’ needs. Especially when the team is part of an already established organization with an existing customer base. Another common mistake is to see the narrow, pure vision as the only yardstick of success which may prevent the business from taking off in the first place. The business leader must manage the friction between the “pure vision” original team members (developers) and “pragmatic” new team members (marketing, sales, supply chain).
At this point in the business lifecycle, revenue grows exponentially, starting from a low base. While the (re)investment rate remains high, the business should aim to achieve at least the operational breakeven point. Since profitability remains near zero, there is still no surplus cash to return to shareholders or money to pay interest on the debt. Therefore, financing should still be done exclusively with equity.
Phase 3 – Exploitation of Sustained High Growth Team
The third phase of the transient advantage wave aims to scale up and expand the business operations to capture profits by exploiting the fast-growing business
In this phase, the business is considered more than viable and success hinges on the team’s ability to turn revenue into profitability. The team shifts the focus from entrepreneurship and innovation to business management, operational excellence, and sustained RD development. In addition, the organizational focus shifts from focusing on the product alignment with the initial business idea to expanding the offering into a portfolio developed to address the growing or changing customer needs.
The management is focused on the operations as it aims to establish the right business and profit model to repeatedly deliver to the customer needs.
The team leader is a builder who can deliver the financial numbers in alignment with the original business story. They accomplish that by setting up a scalable organization with the capacity to build business processes that allow repeated success in the market.
The organization grows rapidly in size and capabilities, including but not limited to a variety of operational, finance, and human resource management. This is often associated with severe growing pains and a challenge to maintain a thriving company culture.
At this point in the business lifecycle, revenue growth remains high while operational costs are growing slower due to the benefits of scale. As a result, the business profitability is growing and should have a low but growing operating cash flow. The (re)investment needs remain high; therefore, there is still no surplus cash available for the shareholder. Since there is a positive cash flow, there’s room for small debt financing as long as it doesn’t waste the money needed for reinvestment. So, equity financing is still the primary choice.
Phase 4 – Exploitation of Sustained Mature Growth Platform
The fourth phase of the transient advantage wave focuses on leveraging a solidified position in the market and associated profitability to transform the business team into a business platform.
In this phase, the business has a double focus: internal and external. The external focus remains entirely on addressing the customer needs by continuously updating and refining the portfolio offering with new and better products. Since the customer knows and trusts your business and products, their willingness to pay is at its highest point. The internal focus is new to the business team. It addresses the need to find appropriate purposes for the increasing cash surplus generated from operations by transforming into a business platform.
Due to the double needs, two leaders are now required: a platform leader and a business leader.
The management is focused on the operations as it aims to maximize the market opportunity.
The business leader is an opportunist who keeps the business story in check with the numbers and quickly captures any new opportunities that extend from the existing business and may include M&A. Furthermore, the business leader aids the transformation from a business team focused on generating profits to a business platform that can support different business teams with capabilities and financing.
The platform leader focuses on repurposing the surplus cash to establish a business platform to fund new waves of transient advantage.
The organization continues to grow in size and diversity in capabilities. By now, the business should have several idiosyncratic internal processes that are inimitable competitive advantages. “The way we work” is a crucial differentiating feature within the broader market. The unique, idiosyncratic qualities are fundamental to the transformation from a business team into a business platform
At this point in the business cycle, revenue growth is slowing but still above the market average. However, thanks to a finetuned operating engine, profitability and operating cash flow are high and growing. At the same time, the reinvestment needs are less. Thus, there is a surplus of cash. The cash surplus can be used to transform the business team into a business platform or return to the shareholder. In the case of the former, the business platform can invest surplus cash in beginning a new wave of transient advantage. Debt financing is generally cheaper than equity financing, and there’s more than sufficient cash to pay interest on debt, so business operations should be financed primarily by debt.
Phase 5 – Reconfiguration of Efficient Mature Stable Platform
In the fifth phase of the transient advantage wave, the business platform reconfigures the organization to allocate internal resources where they are most needed.
In this phase, the business is no longer growing. Furthermore, there is increasing tough competition trying to steal your market share. Thus, it is important to reconfigure the organization to make resources available for new business opportunities. The platform and business leaders continue to manage the internal and external focus, respectively.
The management is focused on finance as it aims to maximize the profit & loss statement.
The platform leader focuses on absorbing the idiosyncratic capabilities and repurposing the surplus cash to establish a business platform that will fund new waves of transient advantage.
The business leader is a defender who adjusts the business story to reflect the mature nature of the business. They shift focus from finding new markets to defending existing market share, which is necessary to ensure further profits are extracted from the business and transferred to the platform.
The organization shifts its focus from sustaining development to efficiency optimizations where the same is done with increasingly fewer resources. The organization reduces headcount and outsources capabilities that are not essential to the business’s survival. The RD developer is replaced with an RD optimizer focusing on reducing product costs.
An essential part of reconfiguration is to ensure that, while resource allocation is dynamic, the organizational platform structure and support provide a stable environment for people to thrive. If people fear that reconfiguration equates to job insecurity, there may be significant organizational resistance to free up resources.
At this point in the business cycle, revenues are stable but not growing beyond the market average. Due to increased competition, profitability is under pressure. It requires the organization to become more efficient to ensure positive operational cashflows. At the same time, (re)investment needs are low, so there’s surplus cash that should, in its entirety, either be returned to the shareholder or reinvested via the business platform. There is no need to risk equity to finance the continued operation of the business, so debt financing is preferred.
Phase 6 – Disengagement from Efficient Declining Assets
The sixth and final phase of the transient advantage wave focuses on healthy disengagement from the business by either liquidating or absorbing the assets into the platform.
In this phase, the business has run its course and is no longer of value to the shareholders or the business platform. Healthy disengagement is as vital as continuous innovation.
The management is focused on finance as it aims to maximize the balance sheet statement.
The platform leader focuses on absorbing the remaining valuable assets and capabilities and repurposing the surplus cash to fund new waves of transient advantage.
The business leader is a liquidator who dismantles the business and sells the assets of no further use to the business platform. They can maximize the cash received for the sold-off assets by ensuring timely disposal. They can avoid bad press and, if possible, reduce the business operations so that the platform is well-compensated to maintain legacy support.
The organization is dismantled with only critical roles remaining if there’s a need to maintain legacy support. People transfer within the business platform into new positions. In the end, the business is discontinued entirely.
At this point in the business cycle, revenue continues to decline until the business is discontinued. Due to the reducing revenues and increased competition, profitability declines faster than revenue. Thus, there is a declining operating cash flow. There are no reinvestment needs, and as assets are converted into cash, there’s a negative reinvestment rate. The surplus cash is either transferred to the business platform or returned to the shareholder. Any outstanding debt is retired in an orderly manner.
Table1: Six Phases of Transient Competitive Advantage
|McGrath's “Transient Wave”
|Damodaran's “Corporate Lifecycle”
|Christensen's “Innovation Cycle”
|Ulrich's “MOE Organization”
+ Supply chain
- RD innovator
+ business manager
+ RD developer
+ Op manager
+ Finance manager
|- RD developer
+ RD optimizer
- Supply chain
- RD Optimizer
|Create revenue stream
|Defend market position
|Scale down business
|Vision: Understand the job to be done
|Vision: Find the right customers
|Operation: Build the business operations
|Operation: Maximize the market opportunity
|Finance: Manage the P&L
|Finance: Manage the balance sheet
|Exponential from a low base
|Above market but slowing
|Stagnating to market average
|Operating cash flow
|Low but growing
|High and still growing
|High but stagnating
|High and growing
|Equity and low debt
|Equity but mostly debt