It’s not that I’m not competitive — believe me, I am. I have ambitious goals for my company and the drive to make them happen.
But I spend very little time worrying about what my competitors are doing. I’m aware of it, but I don’t stress because that mindset will only get you so far as an entrepreneur. If you want to successfully build an organization from scratch, you have to go beyond simply beating other people’s (often mediocre) benchmarks.
Instead, I’ve taken a more pragmatic, cooperative approach toward our competition, one that has helped support our vision for long-term growth. Here’s how.
Make High-Value Referrals
We’re a specialty agency. We create editorial content for B2B brands, mainly enterprise tech companies and financial services firms. So if someone comes to me looking for a consumer marketing plan, I’d steer them towards one of the trusted agencies I know do that sort of work well, even though they’re technically my competition.
Yes, it’s revenue I “lost,” but I can live with that. I know what we’re great at — and what we’re not. And I’d much rather be remembered as the person who gave someone great directions than the one who personally drove them to a dead end because I was too arrogant to admit I was lost.
I also make good referrals when the potential client is a direct competitor of one of our retainer clients. We avoid a conflict of interest, and the company gets its marketing needs competently addressed. Later on, when situations change (and they always do in my line of work), they’ll remember the exchange positively.
Knowing your own value proposition makes this easy. You’re not going to be the best at everything, and you shouldn’t try. Find people whose approaches are different from yours, even if their offerings seem at first the same. You’re not going to be the best solution for everyone.
Make these sorts of connections confidently. Know that such behavior will come as a surprise to a lot of people, but it in a good way. It shows integrity.
Call for Backup When You Need It
Having warm relationships with my competitors also means I can get backup when I need it. At one point last year I found myself in a jam. A deadline for ordering trade show collateral was coming up fast and my design team was fully booked.
I reached out to another agency owner whose design skills I respected and asked for a favor. Within an hour I had the file I needed in hand.
This same willingness to work together also allows you to team up to pursue larger projects than you could have gone after on your own.
Zen Design Firm President and founder Joseph Riviello says he learns his competitors’ weaknesses and offers his company’s strengths so they can tackle larger projects together. “This ultimately helps increase the bottom line of both our companies,” he says. Zen partners with traditional marketing companies to seek out larger projects that require digital expertise. “Both parties gain leverage this way and it opens doors for more opportunities in the future.”
Work to Elevate the Whole Industry
Real thought leaders don’t spend their time cutting down other people in their industry — they work to build everyone up.
“I don’t fear my competition. I love my competition and try to help them,” says John Crossman of Crossman & Co., a real estate firm in the Southeast. This mindset helps the industry becomes stronger and more diverse, which also benefits your own firm in the long run. For me, that means being generous with praise for competitors, in public as well as in private. I even freely share my competitors’ content on my social channels.
That doesn’t meant you always have to agree with what your competitors say. If your reputation as a positive, supportive person in your industry is well established, you are free to chime in with your perspective. You can even strongly disagree, as long as you can do it without contempt or rancor.
If you’re used to a more dog-eat-dog mindset, this approach may feel uncomfortable at first. But I’ve seen it work at our company, as well as for leaders of other, larger organizations. Nice guys and gals really do finish first, even in business.