You've got to step up your game when new players arrive. Here's how.

Staff Writer

Entrepreneurship is a bit like surfing.

You hit the water and wait for the waves to come. Not every wave is the same. Some you can hop on and ride. Others won’t go anywhere and it’s better to skip them. There are waves larger than expected, waves that last longer (or shorter!) than anticipated.

Sometimes you’re alone in the water. You’re able to ride without interference or competition. Other times the surf is packed. People have heard the conditions are good and want in.

Arrive to the beach too early, or too late, and you’ll miss everything.

The Natural Products Expo West, the largest natural food show in the world, took place last week. It was an opportunity to see this analogy in action. The category was once small. It’s now becoming more crowded. A lot of money has come into the space in recent years.

The number of booths and attendees increased dramatically at the show over the past few years – nearly doubling in size since 2010. New companies are replicating successful concepts. Legacy companies are expanding into new product areas.

What was once wide-open ocean is now packed with competition.

It’s exciting! But, it will likely make it difficult for grocery buyers to make decisions in the coming year. Reliance on data will be increasingly important to show which products are rising to the top. Consumers will have a hard time sorting through product choices.

Crowded markets have implications for brands. Here’s what you can do:

Don’t panic.

Large swells in a category can be alarming for existing players. Keep in mind that not every new competitor will succeed. Of course you don’t want to underestimate. But entering a market and succeeding in one are two very different things.

Defend your territory.

When an industry is early, you can get by with a good offense. Once crowds arrive, you’ve got to step up your defense. Tighten and tack down what surrounds your company – relationships, customers, access, etc. Anticipate competitors. Don’t wait until they’re at the door to maneuver.

Get meticulous about product quality.

Customer loyalty boils down to your product. A customer who loves what you offer will not move — no matter how hard someone tries. Have a terrific product every time. Constantly test your offerings. Rely on customer data. Make the quality of your product your sword and shield.

Don’t get lazy.

Always stay on the forefront of what your customer is looking for – your product from yesterday isn’t the product of today. Continue to improve. The brands that look outdated on the show floor this year are the ones who ignored the signs of change. Watch products, but also design, packaging, marketing.

Seize the moment.

Take advantage when you have a blue ocean. Sell, sell, sell – before others enter. Dial up your efforts the minute you see your industry growing. Don’t just rely on selling to new customers – look where and how you can sell more with existing customers, too.

Stay firm on your mission.

Continue to reaffirm your mission and what your company stands for through actions. Consumers don’t just buy products — they buy brands. Brands that align with their values, brands that they know they can trust to deliver what they are looking for. Stand firm on this.

Don’t rush into anything.

Don’t launch products just for the sake of launching products or delivering on investor requirements. Launch products because your product is needed. Launch products because you’ve developed something excellent. Resist the urge to think that spending money, expanding offerings or scaling business will ensure your win. Many brands fall because they move too fast on the wrong moves.