Are You Thinking About Competition All Wrong?

When I was younger I was a competitive swimmer. And while it was years ago, there’s still one race that haunts me – it was a 1,650 freestyle, my favorite race, and one that I approached differently than most of my competitors. While most people took the race out hard and just tried to hang on through the finish, I always got stronger during a race. In fact it wasn’t unusual for me to negative split the race, meaning I’d actually go faster in the second half of the race than I did in the first. It was an unusual strategy but it matched my strengths and always worked well for me.

On this particular night, though, I allowed myself to get distracted by my competition. The girl next to me took the race out very quickly, and all of a sudden I was way behind. I’d known enough about her ahead of time to know this was probably going to happen, and I also knew she usually died badly at the end and that my best time was better than hers so if I stuck with my plan I’d be fine. Still, I threw all of that reason out the window when I saw her take off. I panicked and tried to chase her down.

What happened? I burned myself out in the first half of the race, had nothing left at the end and died badly, finishing well off my usual time. In fact my normal time would’ve won the race that night, but instead I finished near the back, all because I’d lost sight of my strengths and allowed myself to get caught up in someone else’s plan.

So what does an old swimming story have to do with your business?

It has everything to do with how you’re thinking about the competition in your business.

Almost all of the entrepreneurs and small business owners I work with spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about their competition. And I get that – when you’re putting yourself out there in the world it’s only natural to feel protective and even a little paranoid about what the other guy is doing and how that might affect your business.

Paying attention to the threats around you sounds sounds great in practice, but if you start reacting to it blindly like I did that night in the pool, just trying to beat the guy next to you without considering your own strengths, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Why? Because if you think about it you’re choosing to compete over things you don’t have any control over, and that’s rarely productive or sustainable. What if instead you approached the competition question through a framework that was only yours to control, and considered your strengths?

Most people I know assume their only choices of how to compete are on the standard variables like price, location, offering, turnaround – all the old school, traditional metrics. Except today those don’t apply like they once did, especially for small businesses. Instead your customers are making their decisions on variables like connections, experiences, specialized VIP services – all kinds of intangibles that have nothing to do with the standard competitive theory.

Instead of getting caught up in what your competitors are doing, especially if related to pricing (trust me – you won’t win) instead start with your strengths: what your business is good at, and what you as a business owner care about, and then decide which of THOSE things you can win on. I bet you’ll be surprised how quickly you find a niche that you’re great at and that has plenty of customers – and better yet, I bet that when you compare that niche with how your competitiors are positioning themselves, you’ll find that it’s a wide open space.

Does the fear of competition keep you up at night? What steps have you taken to position your company against your competitors? Let us know in the comments!