For almost as long as we've told stories, we've heard how proud and regal lions are and how they rule the animal kingdom. But the truth is not quite as simple. Take lions and hyenas, for example. These two species have long been competition in the African savannah. Contrary to what popular stories would have you think, lions will steal a lot of their meals from hyenas. The hyenas are not too happy about this of course, and they will put up a big show and fight back. They will also try to steal food from lions, but they're usually less successful.
The relationship between lions and hyenas is one of rivalry and stealing from the other what you can, but in the end both benefit. Stealing food from someone else is a lot less tiresome than having to hunt it down yourself.
Of course, in business we have competition too. What do we do about them - ignore them, steal from them, watch them with a suspicious eye?
The good - and the bad - of competition
Competition is born from the idea that there's scarcity - there's not enough for everyone. We have to steal from our competition or prevent them from getting the clients we're chasing. We have to get more than them, and if we can get everything, even better. "Crush the competition" is an often-heard mantra in the business world.
We're told that competition is a good thing, and that is certainly true. Without competition we would have much less innovation, prices would be higher and choices less.
But killing the competition is not always the answer. Companies focused on growth above all are concerned about competition and want to be the only kid on the block. But that growth mostly benefits only their shareholders.
In fact, over-competition can be bad for everyone. When a company is forced to compete against a stronger rival, one of the tactics they use is price competition. And when one supplier starts dropping prices, the others often have to follow suit. This leads to a race to the bottom, losing quality along the way and benefiting no one. The winner is the one that can hold their breath the longest.
But we can also take the position that there is enough for everyone.
There is enough for everyone
Americans throw away almost as much food as they eat. The situation is not much better in Canada where I live, where every person wastes or loses 396 kilograms of food annually. (That's compared with 415 kilograms in the United States and 249 kilograms in Mexico.)
The truth is, there's enough for everyone. Whether you're producing food, or providing consulting services, or building websites, there are enough clients out there for all of us. In fact, there are more clients than we need to build a very successful business.
The problem is not one of not enough clients for everyone - the problem is standing out in a crowded marketplace and finding the ideal clients for your business. And your competition makes it look so easy. They land the clients you wish you had, they seem to have a bigger and better market presence than you have, and somehow they just seem to be more successful. So we have to beat them at their own game, right?
Living by someone else's rules
When you start building your business based on what your competition is doing, you're losing sight of the most important thing in your business: your clients.
A business' priority should be to serve their clients, not beat the competition.
In fact, when your competition becomes more important than your clients, you've probably already lost the race. Here's the problem: not only have you put your competition at a higher priority than your clients, you're also behind the competition because you can only follow what they've already done.
Effectively, going into reactionary mode and trying to beat what the competition is doing is sentencing your business to live by someone else's rules. And that's not a great way to run a business.
But does that mean you should ignore your competition?
Should you ignore your competition?
If you believe there is enough out there for everyone, and that you shouldn't build your business based on what the competition is doing, you're heading in the right direction. You're building your business based on serving your customers - the people who actually provide the revenue you need to run your business and pay yourself.
But does that mean you should ignore the competition? I believe you can - mostly. Here's the deal:
I have many "competitors" and so do you. We already know that building a business based on what they are doing is a bad idea; we're losing focus of our customers and playing follow-the-leader is not a great business strategy.
To succeed we need to stand out from the competition - not necessarily beat them.
In fact, rather than play in their sandbox, we can build our own sandbox. We can make it so different and so attractive to our clients that they (our clients) will be happy to come and play with us. The competition may be wondering what the heck just happened, but the important thing is not that we beat them - the important thing is that we have enough of the right kind of customers we are ideally positioned to serve.
So on the one hand I don't care what the competition are doing - I'm going to focus on serving my customers better. But to do that I must understand what the current offerings in the market look like - so I have to understand what my competition is doing. Not necessarily to beat them, but so that I can do something different.
We need to understand our competition not so that we can beat them - but so that we can be different from them.
So I do look at "competition" every now and then. I look at what they do - not with jealousy - but with respect and trying to understand how what they are doing is attractive to their clients. I will adopt (and adapt) what I perceive as best practices and learn from what they've been doing. But I don't care to try and compete with them - it's far more important to me to serve my clients.
So I don't quite ignore my competition - I learn from them where I can. But I do need to understand them so that I can make sure I don't look quite like they do, that I don't quite use the same words, and that I stand out enough so that my ideal clients recognise me when they see me.
So stop worrying about the competition
You can spend a lot of your time analysing your competition and trying to figure out how to beat them. If you're in a large enterprise you may have the resources to that and it may be appropriate for you.
But if you're a solopreneur or running a small business, there are much better places to spend your time:
- Focus on your customers before you focus on your competition.
- Learn from your competition - they're pretty smart and you may want to get better at some things they're already good at.
- Don't try to compete in their sandbox. Build a different one.
You can (and should) compete. If you don't you will never challenge yourself to be better, to break through your own limits. But we don't need to compete by focusing on our competition. We can focus on the end goal - and see who keeps up.