7 a.m. at my place probably looks a lot like at yours. Two-year-old David is sprawled on the floor, while 5-year-old Sarah is flipping through a picture book. Neither one has given any thought to the preposterous idea of getting dressed, despite the clothes piled up nearby. ”Hey kids, let’s see who can get dressed fast?” I venture. A minute later, Sarah is busy pulling off her PJs in an effort to finish “first.” “You don’t have to be first, sweetie,” I say, “but let’s see if you can do it fast” After all, why would I want to set up my kids for a lifetime of competition and rivalry?
Over at the office we are so set on beating the competition that sometimes we forget we simply can’t. If there is any kind of opportunity in our business niche, other people are bound to explore it as well. They may be more creative or better positioned, faster, or cheaper, and we have no control over what they do at those offices.
And truth is neither would we really want to. A shark pool is not a fun place to spend the day. It’s scary and draining. Every day, I meet clients who stymie their own growth for fear of competition. They are so afraid of being shot down that they don’t venture out of the warm cocoon.
Obviously, you need to be aware of market conditions. Yet playing an unending game of catch sabotages your ability to see new possibilities, explore options outside the box, and build the business, which best reflects what you are uniquely positioned to offer.
There is a better way. Instead of beating competition you can reframe and join it. We are used to thinking of competition as a game of chess. Someone is trying to step over us on her way to the finish line. Another way to consider competition is a Venn Diagram:
You and your competition have a lot in common, but each company has its distinctive offering whether in terms of products, service, relationships, or perceptions. Your business growth will come from concentrating on the segment unaffected by competition (the white section in the diagram). The business is a reflection of the people who run it, so taking a close look at the unique qualities of your team is a good place to start.
Once you are confident in your distinctive abilities, it’s time to join the competition by working in mutually beneficial partnerships. Take my good friend Estie Rand for example. We do (almost) the same thing and work at the opposite sides of a hallway at the same business hub. Both of us help companies attract clients. But while I also coach business owners through personal issues masquerading as business problems, Estie wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole. On the other hand, she is a pro at setting up administrative systems and the crowned queen of Excel. (Just last week she saved my client from a software installation and training by getting a humble spreadsheet to do the heavy lifting.) Both of these are not my cup of tea. Estie and I could be competing, but we decided early on that we’d rather cooperate. Since then we have been referring clients down the hallway.
Now, I know what you are thinking. “If I cooperate with my competition, they can take advantage of me. What if somebody walks off with my client or ideas?” The solution to that is evaluating business opportunities in terms of what Dr. Saras Sarasvathy calls “affordable loss,” or never betting more than what you can afford to lose. That way, even if a relationship sours, your business will be able to withstand the blow.
Secondly, the gain outweighs the risk. Operating in an environment of cooperation will empower you with positive energy and a sense of well-being. Too many business people get burnt out by the constant rat race. Maintaining your emotional equilibrium for the long haul is critical to your success.