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.
Beyond that, an outlook of cooperation will present you with many more opportunities than competition ever could. And even if you encounter a lemon once in a while, the other successful relationships will make up for it abundantly.
How to get rid of competition through cooperation
- Build up your confidence – fear of competition is a clear signal that you are not sufficiently sure of your own place. Security in your right and ability to bring something worthwhile to the table is a great antidote to the fixation on competition. There is only one you. Nobody else has your blend on innate abilities, outlooks, skills, and experiences. The illusion that you are no different than the others is just that – an illusion. God doesn’t work with a cookie cutter.
- Define your uniqueness. Start out by taking a close look at who you are, what you know, and why it matters (you can avail yourself of these tools in the process). What do you know that others don’t? What’s your unique voice and perspective? Where do you challenge the accepted assumptions? How do you defy common sense? What are your areas of excellence? On the other hand, in which areas are you less efficient? Encourage you team members to ask the same questions. Take the time to do this as a team.
- Identify your competition. Make a list of your top competitors. What are the distinct advantages of each? Where do they excel? Why would the clients turn to them instead of coming to you?
- Create your own Venn Diagram. Bring the information together in a visual Venn Diagram. Include all the areas of competition in the overlap area and list the competitive advantages of each company, including your own.
- Explore the opportunity. Consider whether any of your competitors complement you. What resources do they have that you could take advantage of if you were to cooperate? What do you have to offer them? How can you work together?
- Identify your boundaries. Consider which parts of your business must remain outside the cooperation scheme. Which parts of your business are too vulnerable to be shared? If a relationship were to break down, what would be the critical parts to protect? What are you willing to share and what stays behind locked doors?
- Make sure your team is on the same page. Cooperative thinking may not come naturally to some of your team members. You wouldn’t want them to double-guess your decision or to make assumptions about your motives. They may view cooperation as a sign of weakness or an affront to their “team spirit.” On the other hand, team members can help you identify many of the issues at play. Explain your rationale and the pros and cons of both the competitive and cooperating approaches. Get them on board.
- Get to know your competition personally. People prefer doing business with people they like. Having a good relationship makes it easier to work together. So before you build a venture together, get to know each other. Set up a meeting with each one of your competitors, preferably in a neutral setting. Having food around is a great way to break the ice. Tell them that since you are in the same space anyway, you may as well get to know each other. Chances are they are concerned enough about you to agree to the meeting. Repeat until you build solid rapport.
- Co-create joint ventures. Once you build up the chemistry, explore possible ways to benefit each other. A good place to start is by offering your competitors to help them. Ask where you can be of service. What are their needs? Where would they stand to gain by working with you? People are more cooperative when they see their own gain. After a while, switch and share the issues you are looking to solve. The conversation should help you develop ideas for mutually beneficial joint ventures.
Reframing a mindset of competition into that of collaboration can do wonders for your emotional well-being, resilience, and ability to find new avenues for growth.