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Your business can’t beat Amazon—but there’s still a way to coexist

Amazon took all the friction out of retail, and then some. It used to be that if you wanted to buy something, you had to get up from your chair, walk out your door, go find it, buy it, and then bring it back home. These days, you don’t even have to stand up, and the thing you want will be at your door a day or two later.

Pretty much everyone who sells anything online is chasing Amazon’s tail in one way or another, the result of which is that the time we used to spend finding and acquiring the material things we want or need is now ours to do with as we wish.

That’s profound. But it’s also set an impossibly high standard for most small businesses.

When I started my fast fashion furniture startup, The Inside, I had to abide by the ground rules set by Amazon, which literally changed the rules of consumption for most of humanity. If you want to succeed in retail these days, your only course of action is to figure out something that Amazon can’t do that you can do in a more frictionless, designed, aspirational, and brand-worthy way. That’s what CEO Niraj Shah did with online retailer Wayfair: he figured out frictionless in a big enough category—furniture—that it actually mattered.

Don’t get me wrong: there has never been a time quite like today for small companies to challenge established monopolies. But here’s the flip side of that argument: just as yesterday’s incumbents have suddenly found themselves vulnerable to attacks from below, there are already new incumbents standing in the path of almost any company seeking to grow these days. And they are much more powerful than the incumbents of yesterday.

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