Scouting is one of the most important aspects of Starcraft. Deciding when to scout, what to look for, and clever execution are critical skills for any tournament player.
If you don't play, I can explain why this is rather easily. Starcraft is a game about managing your economy, your technology and your army. Because of this, you essentially have four main strategic choices.
- You may want to build up a very strong economy and crush your opponent in the long run with more resources.
- You may want to built an elite group of units very quickly and do critical damage to your opponent before he has the technology to defend himself.
- Or, you may want to get a lot of very cheap units very quickly and overrun your opponent.
- Pursue a balanced strategy, mixing aspects of all of these.
All four of these approaches are very reasonable choices—there isn't a right or wrong approach. Great players have their own styles, but almost all of them mix in all four of these strategies.
The interesting question is actually not "Which of these strategies should I choose?" since all are great options. Rather, players need to answer "Which of these strategies should I choose based on what my opponent has chosen?"
If your opponent has chosen to invest heavily in technology in hopes of crippling you early, you had better not invest all of your resources in building your economy or you will lose. If your opponent is pursuing a balanced strategy, you likely won't be able to kill him/her outright so it might be better to get ahead economically.
And so on. This is referred to as "the strategic wheel"—if you do x, I should do y. What makes Starcraft such a fascinating game is that it's infinitely recursive: since I'm now doing y, you should switch to doing z. The art of professional Starcraft is one of navigating this strategic wheel, and figuring out clever ways to outfox your opponent.
This entire interplay depends on scouting what your opponent is doing. If you don't scout, you're quite literally playing with your eyes closed. Your opponent will scout you, figure out an appropriate response to your strategy, execute it, and you will lose.
This applies for overall game strategy, as discussed above, as well as tactical scouting ("There is a dropship with some marines about to land in the back of my base!"). In the early parts of the game, strategic scouting is very important because the range of options available are unbounded. As the game begins to develop, tactical scouting becomes more important.
Novices often like to sit in their base, build a lot of stuff, and then move out and attack, all without having any idea what their opponent is up to. When they start playing experienced players they begin to wonder why this approach doesn't work.
The critical insight here that newcomers to the game often don't understand is that you're not playing single player. Your goal is to beat another human opponent, and in order to do that you're going to have to formulate your strategy in response to theirs.
If you run a startup, scouting is equally as important. Your customers have choices. They can buy your product or your competitors'. They can use your app or ten other apps just like it. At the start, all products are undifferentiated because we all start out with the same thing: a credit card, a Macbook, and Internet access. It's up to you where you choose to go from there, and the only way to win is by making those choices within the context of your competitive environment.
In Starcraft, scouting is done by sending small, fast, and cheap units running around the map to gather intelligence. Often times you'll have to send units into your opponents base knowing that you'll lose them. (This speaks to the importance of the information you receive, because you're giving up a tangible asset—a unit—in order to receive intangible benefit—information.)
When it comes to your startup, its useful to think of scouting in the same way. You're a single individual, and a single individual only has a very small line of sight. You can only read so much, only acquire so much information on your own. In order to really know what's going on in that wide world of the competitive landscape you play in, you need to amplify your information-gathering tools.
Here's how I approach that problem.
By far the single best way for you to improve your scouting is to employ others to do it for you. That does not mean hiring them and giving them paychecks, it means having large networks of really smart people who respect you and care about your success. If you have such a network, it will effectively turn into your own personal information-gathering service.
- "Did you see this article?"
- "I heard that Competitor A comps their sales reps better than you do."
- "Company B is preparing to go down-market with lower price points."
You can't possibly see everything. Make sure you know a bunch of smart people who know something you'll be interested in when they see it.
2. Look at competitors' job postings
Hiring is a leading indicator. Companies hiring heavily in sales are clearly building their company in one direction, while those hiring heavily in engineering are pursing another. Job descriptions themselves can provide key information. At Argyle we foresaw a strategic threat because of an infrastructure engineer job posting on a competitor's website.
3. Understand your competitors' products
If you're not using your competitors' products, you have your head firmly planted in the sand. This is an incredibly rich dataset. What's most important here is not that you understand competitors' current capabilities, but that you infer future direction.
Too many startup folks refuse to look at competitors' products because they don't want to get caught up in a feature-by-feature comparison. I agree with this. The point is not to do a competitive checklist, it's to understand the technological investment underlying the product and to anticipate where that investment could allow the product to go next.
While many of RJMetrics' prospective customers wonder about the difference between us, Mixpanel, and Kissmetrics, the underlying technology of these tools is extremely different. KissMetrics and Mixpanel are sophisticated tag & API-based web analytics tools, whereas RJMetrics is an ETL & data warehouse platform with a visualization layer. This difference says a lot about our respective forward-looking product roadmaps.
4. Invest in scouting technology
In Starcraft, there are technologies that allow you scout better. A protoss observer with the speed upgrade is significantly better at collecting intel than a slow observer. Researching these upgrades costs resources, which reduces the amount of resources you have to build an actual army.
In the same way, you can invest in technology for competitive intel. This will take engineering time away from building your actual product, but if you're able to make better decisions with the information you gather, then it's more than worth it.
An example: build a dashboard on a public TV that charts adoption of your product alongside the adoption of competitors' products. Layer on a feed of customer commentary, either from Twitter, app review sites, or support message boards. How can you figure out adoption? Scrape the web, look at app store leaderboards, look at information in press releases and infer growth rates, look for incrementing customer IDs in their product... There's definitely a way to at the very least get a proxy.
5. Turn your customers into your eyes and ears
Your customers not only understand their buying choice—why they went with you over your competition—they also are the consistent recipients of all of the marketing communications from your competition. If a competitor is trying a new sales tactic or marketing campaign, your customers are likely to know about it first.
Perception management is obviously tricky here. You can't email your customer list and say "Hey I'd love it if you could just let me know if one of our competitors ever tries to win you away." You'd sound like an overly jealous boyfriend.
But if you cultivate real relationships with your customers, this type of information will flow freely. If you stop being a corporation and start being a person who's trying to build something great you can enlist them on your team over the long run.
This is how I scout. It is a constant, active process. It's fun, it sparks my competitive drive, and it keeps me sharp. Actually, the reason most novices don't scout in Starcraft is that they're scared—it is psychologically easier to not know what you're up against and rather than to know for a fact that you're losing. Don't succumb to that fear. You can't win if you have your eyes closed, and knowing you're losing should just spur you to want to win more
PS: Basic solutions like "follow your competitors on Twitter", "read industry blogs" and "set up Google Alerts" are table stakes. If you're not already doing them I would recommend you pursuing a different line of work that is more in keeping with your lack of curiosity and drive.
PPS: If, upon reading this post, you find yourself objecting to the fact that Starcraft is a zero-sum game (one winner, one loser) and that technology startups are non-zero-sum, then kudos. This is a reasonable, and sophisticated, counter-argument. However, I do not believe that it negates the advice, only adds a layer of depth. If you find yourself in a truly pie-expanding competitive situation, then scouting is admittedly less important.