Sometimes new entrepreneurs are overly worried about beating the competition. They start a business, they set up shop, and they get to work—but then a bad habit develops. They start comparing. They spend too much time watching other businesses and sizing themselves up against them. It can become an obsession. Eventually, they’re spending less time innovating and more time stalking their competitors.
Not literally. What I mean is, they spend precious time looking at what their competition is doing. They lurk on the competition’s website. They follow the conversations on their social media threads. They make a weekly or even daily habit of seeing what the competition is up to, and try to plot their own strategies accordingly. They watch their videos, read their blogs, and follow their news. They think this is smart business practice.
How Comparing Derails Your Plans
Being aware of your competition is all well and good. It’s even necessary. But studying them without specific goals in mind doesn’t help you build a better business. It distracts you from it. It creates a habit of reactiveness that takes you away from pursuing your own vision. It turns you into a follower instead of a creator. It takes you off of your path and down one that—while different from the competition’s—is still parallel to it.
If you focus too much on the competition, it WILL influence your own decisions about your own business. This is a bad thing. Even deciding to do the opposite of what another company does still amounts to having your decisions dictated to you from the outside. The smart approach to independent business is to be exactly that—independent. If your business succeeds, it’ll do so because it’s got a unique approach based on your own vision.
If your approach is based only on trying to do something better than another company, you’ve already lost your way. For example, some companies try to do exactly what their competition does, but at a lower price. There’s a word for the products and services that result: cheap. Trying to do what others do at a better price point is a race to the bottom. Trying to do what others do at all is an inherently losing proposition.
How to Address the Competition
Of course, you do want to know what the competition’s up to. I’m not suggesting that your approach should be formed in a vacuum. But there’s a right way to study them, and a wrong way—by which I mean a productive way, and a distracting way.
The key is to limit the time you spend doing reconnaissance, and to confine it to the methods that promote independent thinking. Whatever your business is, start by defining your approach first. Before you even peek at a competitor’s website, take a few minutes to establish exactly what makes your approach different. I like to use the following method:
- Write five sentences describing what makes your approach to your industry uniquely valuable. What defines your vision? What elements are you trying to bring to the customer’s experience? You’re looking for the aspects of your business that are rooted in your creativity. What is your idea of the best product? That’s what you should be selling. If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
- Once you’ve articulated your own ideas, then (and only then) it’s safe to check out the competition. Google the sort of product you’re selling, and visit the websites of the top three hits. Spend no more than 20 minutes on each site. Take notes. Record your impressions. Be as thorough as possible, because you won’t be coming back to these sites for a long time.
- Now compare your notes on the competition to your own 5-sentence manifesto. Do your ideas stand out? Do they utilize a unique angle? Will you truly be pursuing your own notions of what’s best for the customer? Confirm that your business is based on a foundation of creativity, not on some attempt to “beat” the competition at their own game. If it isn’t, proceed directly back to Square One.
- Refer to these notes—not the competitor’s websites—whenever you need to consider how your business stands out from the crowd. Don’t expose yourself to the persuasiveness of their websites. Have, on paper, your perception of their operation. Your notes are in your voice, and they’ll help you to continue thinking in your voice.
The Problem With Competing
If you approach business as a competition, you’ve already defined yourself in terms of other people’s actions. That might work in the corporate world where huge companies with vast resources battle for the lowest common denominator, but it’s a horrible approach to independent business. Entrepreneurship only works if it’s done by innovators, by people who don’t want to be anyone other than themselves. No one can ever beat you at being you.
If you do give in to the temptation of monitoring the competition, you’re likely to regret it. You can get sucked down the rabbit hole, never feeling like you understand your opponent enough to defeat them. Thing is, there’s no need to defeat them at all. Especially if they’re staying true to their own vision, you can’t beat them. Not at that.
A better idea is to see the “competition” as your colleagues in the market. You may want to collaborate with them. You may find yourself on the receiving end of their professional courtesy, and vice versa. Small business is a small world. The people at the other company may be the people you can learn from, or who can learn from you. You want friends in your industry, not enemies.
That doesn’t mean you have to lack ambition. But your ambition should be the ambition to perfect what you do. That has nothing to do with anyone else. The more unique and specific your solutions are, the more successful they’ll be. It isn’t about running faster down the track than the other guy. It’s getting off the track and choosing your own destination. Competition is for Pizza Hut. You’re an entrepreneur.
Don’t ignore the businesses that exist in your field. Acknowledge them. Learn from them. But don’t dwell on which of you is “better.” Rather, compete against yourself. Challenge yourself to redefine how business in your industry is done, to conceive of new solutions. Your job is to pursue your ideas, and no one else’s.