Don’t get me wrong—it’s okay to be mindful of your competition. It’s okay to be friendly with competitors and even have a beer or two. It’s completely okay to get to know one another and size each other up.
Who knows? There might be a merger in your future.
Just don’t get obsessed.
A few weeks ago I met with a fellow CEO for a quick get-to-know-you beer. I enjoyed it. We covered a wide range of topics and were very candid with each other. At the very end, as we were saying goodbyes, I encouraged him to attend some of the CEO group events I attend in the community.
I said, “You know how at the end of an NFL game, the quarterbacks who should despise each other, end up hugging it out? It’s like that with CEOs.”
He responded: “Exactly. You just don’t know until you know.”
And that’s the thing.
You Don’t Know Until … You Know
As much as you can try to write about it or describe it, admittedly it’s difficult to put in words. But experienced CEOs know, because they have been through the good and the bad – and the really bad.
These experiences create common ground for those that have lived through them (and for clarity – I use the term CEO for simplicity. It applies to anyone who is in charge of an entire organization where they are the sole, accountable individual).
I recently reached out to a first-time CEO to offer a helping hand, or just someone to talk to. He dismissed me, confident he knew exactly what he was doing. I was disappointed.
I have been leading companies all of my adult life. All I learn, every single day, is how much I still have to learn. So, I just shook my head, and thought to myself – “He’ll learn soon enough how hard the job is.” Because eventually, you will learn about all things that fellow CEOs have had to deal with, and hopefully you will learn from their experiences and hardships.
Healthy Interest or Obsession
While it is important and valuable to learn from industry peers, there is a fine balance that must be struck between healthy interest in your competition and obsession. Finding this balance may feel a bit like walking a tightrope, but once mastered, it can give you insights you may have been blind to previously – benefiting not only your business, but also your sanity.
“Keep your competition close and your customers closer.”
Most in the business world are familiar with the saying, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” and often misattribute it to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
This line was actually first uttered by Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, and is used today in many business scenarios to justify time and energy focusing on competition.
I don’t believe in this viewpoint. My view of competition in the startup world is pretty simple—don’t get obsessed with your competition. Instead, get obsessed with your customers.
Get Obsessed with Your Customers
For a startup, the most common causes of death are self-inflicted wounds. Competition isn’t what will kill you.
Lack of a good product will. Lack of a market for your product will. Lack of cohesive founder dynamics will. There’s a thousand other things that will kill you, but your competition is not likely to kill you.
Throughout my life as an entrepreneur I have witnessed competitors intentionally copy pricing, messaging, and product. They have even tried to target their rivals’ customer base.
The thing is, by following another company’s lead they’re assuming the competition knows exactly what it’s doing. But, sometimes they don’t.
So, the thing is, by both paying attention and not really paying attention to the competition, you can find a balance and also find the most important ingredient of a startup’s success: your customers.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Bart Lorang is the CEO and co-founder of FullContact, a Denver-based startup that is the largest full connected contact management platform for professionals and enterprises who need to master their contacts and be awesome with people. FullContact’s cross-platform suite of Apps and APIs enhance contacts with insights, while keeping them organized, synchronized, up to date and safe. Connect with @FullContactApp on Twitter.
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