Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. We've heard this piece of ominous wisdom a thousand times in a thousand thrillers, but what does it mean? Near as I can tell, it means that keeping an eye on people who may be actively trying to do you harm is as important to your well-being as deriving actual well-being from people who love you.
Makes sense. It's much better to anticipate and prepare for setbacks than to be surprised by them in a state of vulnerability, when scrambling and improvisation take the place of coolly executing plans long laid in place. But not many of us have actual enemies, and the nearest thing I can think of besides politics and war is business.
I developed this attitude as a young, first-time business owner in Idaho. I didn't exactly think of my competitors as enemies--I really wanted them to succeed and so I'd hit them up to learn what I could from them and snap up any business that they couldn't fit into their schedule.
Through this I learned the importance of communicating with your competition. It'll keep you on your toes, expand your knowledge of your space, and sharpen your business skills. Even better, you'll make some unlikely friends along the way. Here are four things to keep in mind as you move forward:
1. Don't be afraid.
You should never be afraid of opening up to a competitor. If you have confidence in your business and business strategy, faith in your team, and are in touch with your customers, you shouldn't be scared about being more open. That confidence will show in your overall demeanor when it comes to who you're willing to talk to and what you're willing to communicate.
2. See your competitors as people who validate you.
A competitor is just another sign that your vertical is legitimate. If no one else was hustling to dominate the space you're in, the space probably isn't worth very much. Competition is a good sign--it means you're actually on the playing field.
3. Realize it doesn't have to be win or lose.
Once you see your competition as a healthy sign, you can take a step toward accepting them as being in this struggle with you together. Not that either of you is actively rooting for the other's success, but you at least realize that here is someone who can really speak your language.
They suffer the same doubts, study the same data, strategize about the same potential customers. Sometimes it's psychologically freeing just to connect briefly with someone who understands you. Your competitor does, and it feels good to sit back and talk shop and get a different yet oh-so-similar perspective on the problems that keep you up at night.
It's not usually going to be a question of winners versus losers, but of winners of various sizes and no real losers at all. That just how it shakes out. (Of course, you want to be the biggest winner. That goes without saying.)
4. Be proactive about reaching out.
Your competition probably isn't going to reach out to you, so you've got to take the reigns. It isn't hard to do; it's simply a matter of asking. After all, you occupy the same vertical, which means you're bound to rub shoulders sooner or later.
When I travel to cities where I know a competitor is based, or attend a conference where a bunch of us are gathering, I usually make sure to try to schedule some one on one time with my competition.
Last September, for example, I visited New York and stopped by the office of the CEO of a company directly in my space. I'd reached out to him before, so a face to face visit felt perfectly natural. We chatted for a while, and I divulged that recent maneuvering by Nav had resulted in us gaining a material advantage over him in an important area.
He asked if I had intended specifically to get ahead of companies like his, and I said yes. I was honest. I told him that we took him very seriously and meant to do everything we could to gain every advantage.
He said that he'd have done the same thing if he were in my shoes; then he said that we differed in that he might not have had the guts to tell me what he'd accomplished to my face, and laughed. He said that he was surprised that hearing the news from me had made him feel good.
My personal belief is that he felt good because I'd put everything on the table. We were two friends each trying to build something similar, so we had nothing to lose with honesty, and everything to gain instead.