Everyone knows that business is a dog-eat-dog world full of relentless rivals, right? Consider the legendary battles of Apple and Microsoft, Coke and Pepsi, Bad Boy and Death Row Records, heck, even Macy’s and Gimbel’s back in the day. And how many history students have dozed through lectures on John D. Rockefeller’s immensely successful modus operandi of growing Standard Oil by mercilessly eliminating the competition? Woof.
In a Small Business, rivalries can take on a particularly personal tone. For many Small Business owners, their identities are closely linked to their businesses. Remember how devasted Meg Ryan was in You’ve Got Mail when her book store was threatened by the big box Fox Books? This intimate correlation can make a competitor’s successes feel like personal assaults, and vice versa. It’s easy to allow antagonism toward your competition to distract your attention from your true focus – your customer. What if, instead of trying to villainize your competition, your focus was on establishing positive professional relationships with them? What might your Small Business gain? Well, for Bottle Washer and I, the following occurred:
1. We raised our level of customer service. Even though you may think of other businesses in your field as competition, chances are they have a slightly different market niche than you do. There are some things they do better. Occasionally we get a potential customer who would be better off serviced by another company. We tell them that, and pass on that business’ name. It is a win-win-win. The patron wins, because they get a service that is more appropriate to their needs. The other company wins because they get a new customer. Bottle Washer and I win because we have created a positive experience for an individual new to our business. Trying to keep their business for ourselves would most likely have resulted in a less-than-satisfactory experience for the patron, to our detriment. We traded the instant sale for the long-term appreciation of a future customer. (By the way, this works both ways, those friendly rivals will refer to you as well!)
2. We gained a resource network. Our industry is highly regulated. It is difficult for a Small Business to keep up with all the compliance issues. Since we have fostered strong relationships with others in our industry, I can call those business owners when I have a question regarding the implementation or interpretation of new legislation. I also call on our friendly rivals when making purchasing decisions of new products. Have they tried this? How did it work for them? A trusted source can save you a lot of wasted time and money.
3. We improved our staffing. If you need to hire specialized staff, you eventually will hire staff away from your competition. Having a positive relationship with rivals puts your company in a favorable light, enabling it to attract top staff. It also makes it difficult for a defecting employee to trash talk or harm your business when hired by a friendly competitor. Remember my post on our slick new competitor that moved in? We turned them into an ally, and currently the two businesses actually share an employee.
4. We have a ready market for buying and selling assets. As your business evolves, you may no longer need various pieces of equipment or other assets, or you may need additional assets. Friendly relationships with competitors provide a ready source for both purchasing and selling. Bottle Washer and I have purchased pieces of equipment from competitors that no longer needed them, but were perfect for our needs. We saved some money not buying the items new, and the other business was thrilled to turn unused equipment into cash. Similarly, we have sold items we no longer used to friendly rivals. Having these contacts saves a lot of time searching for a buyer or seller.
5. We lowered expenses. One disadvantage Small Businesses have is the inability to buy most supplies in large enough quantities to get a substantial discount. Why not combine your orders? We have done this in the past for waste removal, propane deliveries (for heat), and some specialized supplies that our industry uses.
6. We gained renters for our old location. Bottle Washer and I bought a commercial space several years ago. We had it retrofitted perfectly for our type of business. Then, to our pleasant surprise, we outgrew the space. Rather than sell it, we decided to rent it. But, it was really only suitable for a similar business. So, we now rent to a rival firm. They were reluctant at first, but once they realized we weren’t going to be sneaking in at night and snooping through their offices, they signed on the line. It has worked out well for both of us.
7. We avoided awkward situations. During the course of doing business you will step outside your own four walls and participate in something bigger. It could be a charity event, a panel discussion, or a Chamber of Commerce program. If it appeals to you, it will appeal to your competition, and they will be there. There are few things as uncomfortable as making small talk in public with another Small Business owner when there is tension between you.
8. We gained a sense of camaraderie. I know we all love our businesses, but sometimes it is really nice to blow off some steam by venting a bit. Who better to listen than someone who truly understands what is going on in your field? When I was in high school my friend Jane’s dad was a minister. Every Wednesday he had lunch with all the other clergy in our small town. No matter what else was going on, he wouldn’t miss that date. Even though they were all competing for the same souls (literally!), those men knew that nothing feels quite as therapeutic as sharing and commiserating with someone who really understands your situation.
9. We may gain a buyer for our business or a new acquisition. Friendly rivalries improve your opportunity to both expand your business and for a favorable exit scenario. When it comes time to sell your Small Business, chances are it will involve either an employee or a competitor. Already having a positive association with that competitor, no matter how casual, will make the negotiations and transaction much more relaxed for everyone. Also, having relationships with like businesses may present opportunities to you to buy a business, and an interested seller may approach you first. This has happened to Bottle Washer and I several times. Although we have yet to actually buy another business, the process of considering it was ultimately very beneficial to our business.
So, the next time a similar Small Business hangs out a shingle a few blocks away. Don’t panic. Send them a plant. Stop by and introduce yourself. And seize the opportunity to build a new relationship.
What friendly rivalries have you cultivated? How did it benefit your Small Business?