It's out there right now. Lurking in the shadows of your success. Hiding where you least expect to find it, a great balance sheet. It is the silent business killer that strikes without warning and can bring even the biggest and the brightest companies to their knees. What is this hidden terror of which I speak? Complacency.
Don't think it can happen? It does, every day. It happens to small businesses. It happens to the big and mighty. It cares not of your size, length in business, or otherwise. It cares only of the cold, hard reality that while you were satisfied somebody else was not and they took your business model and made it better, leaner, and their product more attractive to your consumer base.
Look at Research in Motion ("RIM"), the maker of the once iconic BlackBerry. A scant 10 years ago they were merely a scrappy upstart with a truly innovative idea: let's give people the ability to get their email messages on the go. This idea, and the underlying technology, propelled RIM to the forefront of mobile communications. Within a few years they were no longer the scrappy upstart but the market leader. But a funny thing sometimes happens when you are the market leader. You are so busy looking forward and enjoying your success you forget to check your rear-view mirror.
While RIM was focused on simply staying the course with their email push technology a little company named Apple was focused on delivering an entirely new kind of product. A multimedia and technological wonder known as the iPhone that could deliver your emails just like the BlackBerry but was cooler, hipper, more stylish. People wanted one and wanted to be seen with one. Then, as BlackBerry raced to catch up with the iPhone they were blindsided by the Android operating system.
From scrappy upstart to market leader to the free fall they have experienced in the past 18 months, RIM has seen it all. If only they had seen it coming and had not been complacent when they were on top. If only they had spent time looking where the market was going. If only.
So don't wait for your if only. Avoid complacently always. Avoiding complacency is essential to any business's long-term longevity. Here's how you avoid it:
1. Practice reasonable paranoia
Someone is always coming for you. Someone is always figuring out a better way to do what you do. So practice reasonable paranoia. Don't loose sleep over the fact that once you are established someone will eventually target your customers and try to take away part or all of your market share. But also do not be blind to that fact. Practicing reasonable paranoia will keep your business fresh and out in front of the competition by ingraining into your business that you must always strive to be better because someone else is right now. They're out there. Trust me.
2. Look in the rear view mirror
When you're in the lead it is often difficult to see who is behind you. So what? Look anyways. Who is your closest competitor? Your closest three? Five? What are they doing now and what are they planning? Don't obsess. Ultimately you have to run your business. But that does not mean you cannot take an occasional look over your shoulder to see what they are up to so when someone starts gaining on you your company will be ready to react.
3. You can always do better
But if you always wait to react ultimately there will come a time when you will not be able to do so in time. As such, you must always recognize that you can do better. No one's perfect. A product can always be improved. A service improved upon. If you ever get to the point where you say it is 100% perfect the way that it is you're not looking hard enough. Be proud of what you provide to your consumer. But staying out in front is about challenging yourself to find better enhancements, better or cheaper service, and to strive to always do better even before you are forced to react to a competitor's challenge.
4. Listen for fresh ideas
Think you know it all? Wrong. Anyone who does will fall to the complacency bug. Rather, solicit ideas from others in your company and existing customers alike. They'll tell you want they like and, perhaps most importantly, what they do not. For in the end if you are too busy patting yourself on the back you can't hear the next great idea which may not even come from you.