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October 12, 2009

Imitation is the highest form of flattery? Business competition and the role of personal best

(photo courtesy of Julien Lanthier)

I say that I don’t like competition, at least in its traditional sense. I hate keeping score even when playing board games and I am not motivated by the thought of beating others out to win something. I hate watching championship games because I always feel so sad for the team that doesn’t win but that gets stuck in the midst of their opponent’s victory celebration. (Last fall I was the only person in Philadelphia who had sympathy pains for the Tampa Bay Rays when the Phillies won the World Series).

It is an odd perspective given the fact that I was an athlete when I was younger and a very “competitive” swimmer. Many folks I swam with have gone on to be in the Olympics and it was a very important part of my life (until I was sidelined by reconstructive shoulder surgery). However, I think it was swimming’s unique form of competition that influences my business ethics today.

Swimming is primarily an individual sport and one that is focused on achieving your personal best. It was better to come in 3rd and “drop” 1 second off your best time than it was to come in 1st at a slower pace. That is why it was so important to swim with people that were better than you – they made you perform at your best. And when the race was over congratulations were shared in the form of a handshake, high five, or hug.

To this day performing at my personal best is what is important and motivating to me. Maybe that works out because I have such high standards and expectations but it is an orientation that feels honorable and honest. However, it runs contrary to some business advice that you may read or hear. I know others that are fiercely competitive in their marketplace and who indulge business rivals (read this funny Fast Company business frenemy piece) or who subscribe more to an ‘”it’s all fair in love and war” type orientation.

At IGC we talk a lot about the value of collaboration and how it is really important to have a relationship with those who are seeming competitors or who are in the same market place. Why? Well because your business or service is not for everyone, and people will find the best solution that works for them, and sometimes it’s important to have referrals, and you can learn a lot from those who do similar work to you (best practices, industry trends, what to expect). And, most importantly, good competitors improve the marketplace and make you perform better.

We are not oblivious to the potential awkwardness involved in these relationships and certainly don’t advocate giving away the secret sauce, but we genuinely believe that there is a lot to be gained from collegial collaborative relationships. We have written about Competitor Etiquette before.

And it is not just lip service either. We enjoy strong relationships with networks such as Ladies Who Launch and Collective-E and we support lots of other members who also work to educate women entrepreneurs. And we are not the only place in town that offers shared space…there is a whole co-working movement…and there are plenty of respectful ways to maintain a relationship with other providers. Newer establishments have even gone so far as to give us a respectful “heads up” call before they open just to keep us in the know. We have had meetings with lots of other space owners.

So, why do I bring this all up? Well, given that these are my beliefs, I sometimes struggle with the appropriate way to handle behavior that appears deceitful.
(I say appears not because I am nice but because I am smart enough to realize that you never know the whole story)

What do you do when a local business begins to offer a service nearly identical to yours and even uses the same language to explain it? And when you learn that it is a former member who will be “helping” them by doing sales, marketing, and programming?

I am not so bothered by this other business offering shared workspace, as it is unlikely that their members would have used our space and because I believe that what we offer is so important and valuable that I truly do want women to benefit from it (whether we provide it or not).

But it is the member’s involvement that irritates me. If the roles were reversed, I can’t imagine the circumstances in which I wouldn’t find a way to talk to someone like me about my new business involvement.

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, perhaps, but sometimes it is just plain rude and offensive.

So, again, what to do? If I were as “brazen” as Penelope Trunk I’d probably just write all about it and the parties involved (don’t get me wrong, although our styles are quite different, I have quite a lot of respect for her…you can see her hold her own in an insulting interview with CNN’s Rick Sanchez).

For me, I think I will call the other business and highlight the similarities in positioning and language. I don’t think it looks well for them to have a carbon copy of our offerings. I will reiterate that I am genuinely glad that they will be providing shared workspace to women that we are unlikely to serve because I think it is a tremendous benefit to those women. Perhaps this conversation will help us to reframe the relationship and we can move forward with a different tone.

And for the former member? I don’t think I will reach out to her. This is not the way that I play business. This is not the kind of competitor that I want to swim with. They won’t help me achieve my personal best and given her apparent ethics I wouldn’t send someone to her offering if they weren’t a good fit for IGC. I know of a business that got started in a similar way (spinning off and creating a competitor business) and I don’t do business with them for the same reason.

And while her behavior was seemingly deceitful, it was definitely short-sighted. Another valuable lesson that I learned from swimming was that each meet was just one of many opportunities to excel and do well. Sure there were always a few very big meets each year, but it was performance over the entire season that really mattered.

I think the most important thing I can do is leverage the learning opportunity. Rearticulate my stance on competition and my own business ethics. Talk with other IGC members about the importance of transparency, trust, and respect. Swim with the right “competitors”. Focus on doing my personal best and performing well far into the future.

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