Any business-minded consultant or entrepreneur will tell you that you need to know about your competition. It is an important part of understanding your market and differentiating yourself from the rest of the herd.
But some business owners get so focused on every move a competitor makes that they completely lose focus on their own business. At the extreme, it is not only distracting, it is downright self-destructive.
I lived through an example of this working with a very talented artist and dance instructor in the 1990s. He was creatively brilliant and a gifted teacher. But he was completely obsessed with other instructors in the area and would fly into a rage if a student from his school left to join another school. At a certain point, he was as focused on studying, subverting and badmouthing the competition as he was on creating new art and building his own school.
I learned a number of lessons from this experience, and many others like it, working with entrepreneurs:
- When you shift focus from understanding who your competitors are to spending half your time thinking about them, you have ceded your own power. In essence, you are choosing the role of follower and not leader. Instead of obsessing over what they are doing, focus on what is exciting, special, unique and revolutionary about your own business.
- No matter how much expertise and experience you have, if your market is worth operating in, there will always be a worthy competitor. Rather than fight it, constantly look for ways that you can reshape and refine your business to match your greatest strengths and better serve your customers. If you find that there is nowhere to grow or innovate, maybe you are operating in an overripe market and should look for a new one to play in.
- No matter how secure you feel, a competitor will come along that pushes a personal button because they are smarter, younger, richer, better looking or more charismatic than you are. This is where you have a chance to put into practice what they say about the best lovers: They are most often not the suave and good-looking sports all-stars, they are the quiet, unassuming, average looking people who develop their “skills” based on reading and responding to the needs of their object of affection. Don’t let your own insecurities run away from you and cloud your business judgment. Celebrate your unique strengths and know that you are perfect just the way you are.
- Coercing customers to stay with you based on badmouthing competitors will always backfire. People like to feel they are free to make a choice about where to spend their time and money. And like a first date with a man that spews venom about his ex-wife, they will wonder how long it will take before you start spewing your venom at them. The more open and secure you are about your own business, the more secure your customers will feel with you and more likely they will stick around. Remember, if you truly want to serve your customers, you have to realize that at certain times your competitors may be a better fit. As Sting says, “When you love someone, set them free.”
- There will be times when a competitor does something that feels unethical or mean or just plain shifty. If it directly impacts your business or reputation, you must address the issue quickly and appropriately. But once it is handled, go back to focusing on the needs of your customers. If it involves legal matters, you must weigh carefully the return on investment of your time, energy and money to resolve the issue in the courts. Play out the two scenarios: if you win, will it make your business stronger and better able to serve the needs of your customers? If you lose, will you have a business to salvage? I think we often engage in legal battle more to punish the offending person rather than to achieve a desired business outcome. Don’t worry about punishment … karma takes care of that for you.
- There is nothing wrong with competition — it is all how you react to it. A business building reaction to a strong competitor would be thinking “So you want to amp up this game? Bring it on bucko, I can handle anything you throw my way.” A business destroying reaction to a strong competitor would be: “No one does that to me and gets away with it. I will crush you and everyone who supports you to prove that I am the best.”
If you are Intel, you may have an army of lawyers and consultants to track and monitor every move AMD makes. If you operate in a niche desired by Larry Ellison, you should watch your back, as you never know when he will feel like flattening your business by landing on it with one of his noisy jets.
But if you are Jane the Dog Walker with a small practice in Boise, Idaho, or Matthew the Marketing Genius in Boston, Massachusetts, your real focus should be on studying and understanding the feelings, aspirations, problems and desires of your target audience. When you do this, you will naturally grow your business in the right direction, and serve your people in a way that makes them feel truly special. And you will enjoy your life a whole lot more.