When I started my business 24 years ago, I believed I should have a “versus” attitude toward my competitors. It was their offering versus mine, right? One company had to win, didn’t it? Like many people, I thought that getting ahead in business meant getting ahead of someone else. I can remember that electric anxiety feeling I’d get when I’d learn through the grapevine that a prospective client had chosen another consultant for a project we’d discussed or when, at a conference, I’d watch a competitor deliver a great presentation. Damn. Why wasn’t it me up on that stage?
But early on, a lucky accident caused me to switch my thinking. Here’s what happened. In 1996, when I launched E-WRITE, my writing training business, I often got a skeptical reaction when I explained that my company offered training to help people learn to write web content. Family, friends, even the other parents at my kids’ preschool would ask, “Can you make a living doing that??” and I’d answer, “Yes, I can. Helping people learn to write better is like selling groceries. There will always be a need!”
The more I kept saying, “There will always be a need,” the more I came to believe it. And if there will always be a need, then I could let go of the “versus” attitude. I got to know my competitors personally, became curious about but not threatened by their offerings, and stayed calm when I learned a job I’d bid on had gone to someone else.
Here are six reasons you should be business friends with your competitors
Your competitors are your best teachers. If you own a bakery that sells gluten-free pastries, no one can teach you more about selling gluten-free pastries than the competitor bakery a half-mile down the road. Sure, you could sneak in there wearing a floppy hat and dark sunglasses when you stop by to order a whole platter of pastries. You could gather intel like a spy or you could walk in, introduce yourself, and invite that other baker to meet with you monthly to talk business. Yes, there are a limited number of gluten-intolerant customers with a sweet tooth, but if you learn from—and with—your competitors, you may be able to extend the market. And no one else is as intensely interested in gluten-free baking as you and your competitor. Subject matter experts learn best, and most, from each other.
You and your competitors are creating the market, not just serving it. People may not know they need a product or service until it’s offered to them. And either you or your competitor may be offering that product or service before people realize they need it, want it, or are willing to pay for it. In 1996, when E-WRITE was born, we offered email writing and web writing courses, but exactly no one thought they needed this type of help. After all, most emails said things like “Today’s 11 am meeting has been moved to the second-floor conference room,” and most web content was written by the person who knew how to use FrontPage. My competitors and I created the market for this type of training by writing and speaking about the skills people would need to learn to write in these new channels. It would have been harder for me to eventually sell my training services if my competitors hadn’t been pitching their services too.
You can refer prospects to your competitor and make yourself look good, too. Sometimes you’re too busy to take on new work or you get a hot lead that doesn’t quite match your skillset or your interests. If you’re business friends with your competitors, you can make a meaningful referral, in good faith. While you won’t get that prospect’s business this time, that type of gracious behavior means you may get it another time. Also, the competitor will be happy and possibly more likely to refer you.
You’ll get more value from the dues you pay to your professional organizations. If you see your competitors as business friends, then attending your professional organization’s webinars, lunch-and-learns, and annual conferences become a happy reunion, not a cold swim in shark-infested waters. Certainly, you pay those dues to learn from the experts at the top of your professional organization, but you can wring extra value out of those dues by connecting with your competitors there, too.
You’ll extend your reach in social media. While it would be ridiculous for you to like and share your competitor’s best marketing offer on Twitter, it would also be ridiculous for you to ignore an insightful comment your competitor tweets about proposed legislation that would affect your industry, for example. Social media channels are for marketing, yes, but they are also for building community and having meaningful conversations on topics that matter. Connect with your competitors in social channels. Share and comment on their content, as appropriate. You’ll certainly gain followers—I mean customers—along the way.
You’ll learn to see potential threats as opportunities. This is a good mindset for an entrepreneur. Being business friends with your competitors is a “plenty” world view rather than a scarcity world view. When you refuse to see other businesses as threatening to yours, you’re also demonstrating confidence about your business. You don’t need to feel vulnerable! You’ve got it going on, and things are going to be fine. This type of confidence is priceless.
So, 24 years after starting my own business, I can look back on many meaningful business friendships I’ve made with my competitors, people I also consider allies, influencers, mentors, gurus, and non-business-real-life friends. Occasionally, when things have been slow at E-WRITE, I’ve become jealous or nervous about the competition, and I’ve had to work to reset my thinking, but I am good at working. Without these competitor-friends, I’d have fewer clients and prospects, and far less job satisfaction. I know how much good my competitors have done for me.
This post was originally published at the 8×8 blog.