The frenemy economy: know your competitors

In this new weekly column, Marco Greenberg, a long-time PR and marketing jedi specializing in venture-backed start-ups, will share his experience of the most common mistakes young entrepreneurs make that keep them from getting the love—and the buzz—they so justly deserve.

Chapter Seven: Because Your Competitors Are Making You Crazy

Some of you might have read, Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster and Easier Way to Build a Successful Web Application by 37 Signals. If you’re a startup in growth mode – and, these days, who isn’t – it’s worth checking out for many reasons, including the directives to “have an enemy” and “pick a fight.”

The authors weren’t being flippant. Competition gets the juices flowing and focuses you, challenges you, makes you and your company better, not to mention providing a proven source of recruits. But competition also provides other, less obvious benefits.

In the “frenemy” economy, it’s good to keep your options open.  Your enemy today might end up partnering with you tomorrow. Besides, you’re judged on the company you keep, and your valuation soars if your entire category value is driven up by a couple of dashing rivals.

But having competitors isn’t simple, emotionally and practically. Faced with rivals breathing down their necks, I’ve seen otherwise rational and highly accomplished entrepreneurs act like moody adolescents having a hissy fit when it comes to their competitors.  Often times they exhibit what psychologists refer to it as “all or nothing” or “hero or zero” thinking rather than a more wise and dialectical middle path.

Here are just some of the symptoms I’ve witnessed.  Ask yourself honestly if any apply to you:

Total Denial: This business owner has blinders on and has no time or interest for others in the field.  Either because she is so convinced of her own greatness or because she thinks acknowledging her competitors might make them mightier, she acts as if there’s no one else out there worth any attention.

Bad ADD:  This entrepreneur has difficulty focusing on just one competitor and instead will argue, sometimes convincingly, that their competitors vary depending on the product line. He will insist that the market is so dynamic, there’s no way anyone can keep track. Before you know it, the list of competitors balloons to include just about every company doing business under the sun.

Serious OCD:  This technologist is so completely obsessed with his competitive set that he is in constant hyper-reactive mode. He has ordered his entire marketing team to spend hours each day conducting ongoing analysis of his competitors. Walk around his office’s corridors, and you’re more likely to hear people talking about rival companies than about their own. The competitors’ respective CEOs are so top of mind within his company that they’re referred to by their first names. Which, needless to say, is not cool.

These are just a few common conditions. Others apply: some entrepreneurs get unhealthily envious of their competitors, some are paralyzed by crippling anxiety that everyone out there is doing a better job, and a few escape into all-encompassing grandiosity and argue that they, and they alone, are their industry’s shining light.

How to avoid these pitfalls? Here’s the terrible and beautiful part: you can’t. If you’re doing business, if your life is your work, if you are passionate and caring and motivated, you’re going to look outside your own office and take measure of your rivals. And because you’re human, as soon as you do that, you’re going to get emotional. The key is to tap your emotions and let them guide you to a more productive place. Here are a few strategies that can help:

  • Meet with more of your competitors: Chances are, two people who both chose to go into a very specific industry might have a lot in common. And truth is, there’s more than enough business to go around. So why not make new friends, especially if they may soon become business partners?
  • Treat it like a sport: I’m a hard-core football fan, and as every sports fanatic will tell you, playing games is very serious business. But if you adopt a sportsmanlike mentality, you’ll find that even the most crushing defeats are mitigated by the soothing sense that there’s another game right around the corner.
  • Remember that there’s a world out there: And it’s not all about bottom-line and ROI. Why not organize an industry-wide conference? Or get a few of your rivals to join you in donating to a favorite charity? Such collaborations can refocus even the bitterest rivalries and remind all involved that life is greater than a few eager companies wrestling with each other.

Hug thy frenemy, then, and your business—not to mention your soul—will thrive.

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