Make Friends With the Competition and Win Big in Business

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My first company was two years old when my top employee told me he was leaving. After seeing how successful 1-800-GOT-JUNK? was going to be, Mike had decided to open a competing junk removal service.

First, I was devastated to be losing a great employee. And then I became obsessed with shutting his new company down. It was all I could think about. I spent endless time and money trying to sue, to convince dumps to turn him away, to prevent our industry contacts from helping him out. But it was all just an exercise in self-destruction. As his company quickly grew, mine came to a standstill. Fighting Mike (and the inevitable) had distracted me from what mattered.

I realize now that turning the competition into an enemy is the wrong approach. Today, I try to make them friends. I’ll even go so far as to invite them into the office for a tour or to watch our morning huddles. Some people might think that sort of transparency is crazy, but I’ve learned that when you help each other out, everybody wins. In fact, a study of international mergers showed that collaboration is a key component in a business’ success.

With that in mind, here are three reasons to befriend the competition so you can win big in business.

Let’s Get Real: There Are No Secrets Anymore

The days of Colonel Sanders hoarding a secret fried chicken recipe are long gone. We live in an age where very little can be hidden (everything leaves a digital footprint!). Your competitors can easily find out your company’s secrets, whether it’s by posing as customers or sicking their intel teams on you.

Luckily, it’s not secrets that define success or failure, but execution – the thousands of things that the best businesses do right, day after day. If you have confidence in your company’s execution, and know you can stand out and be different, then it’s healthy to lay it all on the table.

When I want to know something about the competition, I just pick up the phone and ask them flat out. I once called the owner of Just Junk to introduce myself and to ask him about their great web booking system. He was happy to oblige, and had a few questions of his own for me. We’ve since become big supporters of each other, regularly grabbing a beer to swap stories and bounce around ideas – and our “open kimono” philosophy has helped us both for the better.

The Harvard Business Review calls this kind of rapport “coopetition.” What it means is that no matter what you’re after in the marketplace, no two companies are exactly alike, so trust that you can benefit from one another’s resources without stepping on anyone’s toes.

Building Bridges Will Get You Further

As author and SkyeTeam founder Morag Barrett puts it, “Business is a team sport”. You never know when you might need help from your peers, so building a trusting relationship rather than an adversarial one helps everybody out.

It’s a karma thing. Whenever I’m friendly, it comes right back to me. Like the time I invited the CEO of 505-JUNK to come check out the office and be part of our huddle; a few weeks later, he sent me an insider tip about government grants that was super useful.

Of course, not everybody is going to be your BFF. We had an issue with one rival company using targeted SEO to deliberately redirect our potential customers. It was tempting to lawyer up, but instead, I made a couple of straightforward phone calls and diffused the situation. It worked because I had made an effort to get to know the owners over the years at industry events, and when they pulled a sneaky move, I was able to call them on it (nicely, of course).

Competition Makes You Stronger

When it comes to a new industry or business category, competition can actually help build awareness. If you’re in an unknown space or sector, what’s better than getting your competitors to spend their money promoting what you do, too? Just think of Netflix and Hulu – two big companies separately making the case for streaming services.

And if you’re working towards the same goal, your competition may even be ideal collaborators. Take a cue from Toyota and BMW, who once teamed up on the development of an environmentally friendly luxury vehicle. It may seem odd to partner with your rival, but sharing the cost of research or development can help take you both to a new level of innovation.

Being friendly doesn’t mean losing your competitive fires. You’re still fighting each other for customers and for dollars, but the key realization is that competition should make your company better. Every McDonald’s needs a Burger King; UPS wouldn’t be where it is without Fedex.

In the end, these healthy rivalries help stave off an even greater threat to your business: complacency.

Brian Scudamore is the founder and CEO of O2E (Ordinary to Exceptional)
Brands, which includes companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING, You Move Me and Shack Shine. He's passionate about helping others grow small to medium businesses and corporate culture.

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