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2013-07-10 15:00:00

Welcoming Dropbox Datastore

So I guess maybe I need to stop telling people that Zumero is "like Dropbox, except for data instead of files". :-)

This week, Dropbox announced their Datastore API.

Right now, the Datastore API only supports single-user scenarios, but on the Dropbox forums, some "Dropboxer" named "Steve M." clearly says that multi-user is in their plans. I don't know who Steve is, but I consider this kind of remark in a developer forum to be more authoritative than a press release. So I'm going to skip the blog article where I say that "Datastore is nothing more than a cross-platform iCloud" and start considering Dropbox to be a Zumero competitor immediately.

And I'm going to cautiously say that this is a good thing.

Well fine. I'll admit that this news is not all good. Those of you who have been reading my stuff for a long time might recall a piece I wrote ten years ago where I said the ideal competition is "big and dumb". As far as I can tell, Dropbox doesn't really fit into that quadrant. They seem pretty smart. And even though they are FAR bigger than Zumero (how many private companies have done a 100M acquisition anyway?), they're still pretty small (221 employees, 257M funding, according to Crunchbase). So if I were to choose a competitor, I'd prefer somebody bigger and dumber than Dropbox.

Still, this news is mostly good. Why? Because (1) now we have a category, and (2) Zumero's differentiation is solid.


Mobile data sync has been in a weird place. Some people see Zumero and say, "OMG this is so cool and it's exactly what I needed and how does it work?". Other folks send us notes and say, "Why would anybody want this? Everybody has completely reliable LTE, right?"

Anecdotally, the need for sync in mobile is quite clear. One example: StackMob (one of those cool Backend-as-a-Service companies) says, "The ability for apps to work offline is the most requested feature we see from developers."

I've been doing my part to evangelize the cause, such as I did in my previous blog entry, Keep your CRUD off the Internet. But nobody listens to me.

Oh, sorry, dear reader. I didn't mean to imply that you are a nobody. I appreciate you. Really, I do.

A bigger voice for the cause is Couchbase co-founder Chris Anderson, who tends to run around claiming that Sync is the Future of Mobile Data. (Godspeed, Chris.)

But all this localized noise isn't the same as having a widely understood category. A category gives people a label which can be used to very quickly (and with some inaccuracy) explain what a product is. When somebody says, "It's a first-person shooter", you know immediately what to expect. You know that it will be somewhat like Doom (if you're my age) or Halo (if you think Michael Jackson was always white). And if by chance you are not familiar with the label, you can expect to Google it and get it explained quickly. You know that Wikipedia will have an overview, and probably a list.

Products without a category are incredibly hard to sell. Most of them fail or stay confined to a small niche. Two of my favorite examples of this point are Segway and Hypercard. Both were far more successful than the average product without a category. And yet, they both faced challenges arising from the absence of a widely-understood label. In both cases, what I remember most is all the people asking, "What is it?"

With the Dropbox announcement this week, mobile data sync took a big step toward becoming a category. Previously, it was basically just Couchbase and Zumero. And we don't have our series A yet. And our closest airport uses regional jets. So we don't count. Which means actually it was just Couchbase. I don't know what the official criteria are for the existence of a category, but having only one "funded company near a real airport" is not enough.

Now we have two. Couchbase and Dropbox. (Plus that little company out in the Illinois cornfield, the one that starts with a Z.)

Do I really want these two companies as my competition? No, but Zumero is probably not big enough to get a category started, and Couchbase and Dropbox probably are. And we must have a category. Having competition is rarely fatal. Selling without a category usually is.

Shout out to Forrester analyst Michael Facemire: Hello Michael, what's happening? Ummm, I'm gonna need you to go ahead and begin writing about this mobile database sync category. So if you could start drafting some research about Couchbase Lite and Dropbox Datastore, that would be great, mmkay.. oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I'm also gonna need you to go ahead and mention Zumero in there too, kay. We ahh have a great product, but we're two hours from Chicago, and ah, we sorta need to play catch up.


There is no reason to be scared of competition if your differentiation is solid. For most people, this rule is extremely counterintuitive. They see competition and they run away. They think the only way to be successful is to have a product that is better.

That thinking is correct but incomplete. Actually, you need to have a product which is better for some [sufficiently large] group of customers.

There's nothing wrong with the word "better". Being better is good. Making your product better is good. Three cheers for "better".

But I have found that it is often more productive to think less about how your product can be better and think more about how your product can be different.

The word "better" connotes a simple two-person race or game. Run faster. Hit harder. It encourages an inward focus. It drives attention to the product and your competitors. These things aren't all bad.

But the word "different" suggests that you ask for whom your product will be better. It drives attention to the customer. It wants you to think about a [sufficiently large] group of people whose different needs lead them to see your product as the best choice.

In marketing terms, this is Ries and Trout Law #2: "If you cannot be first in your category, setup a new category" (which is another thing I wrote about a long time ago).

So I feel great about Zumero because our product is different from Couchbase and Dropbox in very significant ways, the most important of which is SQL.

I'm not interested in the religous war, so don't email me to explain how Mongo saved your marriage. NoSQL is cool. But the simple fact is that lots of companies have a massive investment in SQL. And those companies want mobile solutions which integrate with their existing stuff using technologies they already know. There is enormous business opportunity for us.

Is Zumero always better than Couchbase Lite and Dropbox Datastore? For every single situation? Certainly not. But for companies who prefer SQL, it certainly is.