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Dealing With the “Competition” Some Dos and Don’ts for Small Business Owners

As a small business owner, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the seemingly contradictory notions of competition and collaboration. This pondering began with an article in Entrepreneur magazine that contained a list of factors that “contribute to a poor marketing mindset.” Parts of the article were appallingly contrary to my own marketing mindset, prompting me to write the following letter to the editor:

Dear Editor,

As a longtime entrepreneur who understands the importance of marketing, I’ve always been a great fan of guerrilla marketing guru Jay Conrad Levinson. So while I gained much from he and Al Lautenslager’s article Mind Over Market (March 2005), one of the marketing-sabotaging attitudes they trumpeted left me cold.

Apparently those of us who are guilty of “lacking a competitive spirit, not having a killer instinct, and not playing to win” are doomed to failure. This may be what I refer to as a “genderalization” but based on my experience working with other women business owner’s, this kind of eat-or-be-eaten approach just doesn’t resonate with the majority of my gender.

In fact, rather than trying to “kill” or “beat” my competition, I go out of my way to refer prospective clients who would be better served by more traditional employment vs. entrepreneurial-oriented career counselors. I also actively courted two highly successful “competitors” in the form of Barbara Sher (I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was) and Barbara Winter (Making a Living Without a Job). Together we produced – and share in the profits – of a 24-set CD program for aspiring entrepreneurs called Making Dreams Happen (ChangingCourse.com/mdhcds.htm).

A perhaps more accurate interpretation of what some may see as lacking competitive spirit is the conviction on the part of many women that there is something wrong with a definition of success that says in order for me to win, someone else has to lose. It’s also the kind of win-win-win marketing strategy that has me and my competitor’s laughing all the way to the bank.”

Valerie Young
Dreamer in Residence
ChangingCourse.com

(As an important aside, something as simple as a letter to the editor can serve as a great no-cost way to market yourself or your business. In addition to hopefully making some readers rethink their approach to competition, the letter led to more exposure. An Entrepreneur columnist writing a book on marketing is including my story in her chapter on collaborative marketing and I was interviewed by Kiplinger magazine for a feature on dream jobs coming out this September. Best of all, for zero advertising dollars, I promoted my work and that of my “competitors” to Entrepreneur’s over half a million subscribers.)

So how do can you work with the competition?

“Compliment” Your “Competitors” Work

By “compliment” I don’t mean praise, although I readily encourage that too. What I mean is that if you like an individual’s or a company’s way of thinking or doing something, whether that’s teaching, or furniture design, or floral arranging, or food preparation, then find a way to contribute to their body of work, process, concept, or technique in such a way that everyone is richer for it.

For example, what makes my working relationship with Barbara Sher and Barbara Winter so utterly delightful is precisely the fact that our philosophies are so very similar. For example, the obstacle part of what Barbara Sher refers to as “Wishes and Obstacles” I’ve always called “Work Arounds.” based on my belief that when it comes to changing course, problems are simply things to be worked around. What Barbara Winter calls profit centers (a concept she pioneered) I refer to as income streams.

It’s impossible for there not to be some degree of overlap in our respective messages. Just try, for instance, to talk about tapping into your inner genius, battling resistance, or getting support for a dream (just three of Barbara Sher’s many areas of expertise), or making a living without a job or jumpstarting your entrepreneurial spirit (Barbara Winter’s passion and the titles of fist and newest life-changing books respectively), or the steps involved in escaping the job world, the Life First Approach to Career Planning, being an “opportunity analyst,” or How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are (ChangingCourse.com/handbook.htm) (my specialties) without also talking about things like fear, challenges, gifts, hopes and dreams, creative careers, Find Your Calling, dream bashers, dream supporters, obstacles, self-doubt, self-marketing and all the rest that go into getting from “here to there.”

But there is a solution…

Credit Your Sources

As a public speaker and seminar leader for over 25 years and a writer of sorts for the last ten, ethically speaking, it’s always been incredibly important to me to credit my sources. Partly I think it comes from my strong need to “do the right thing.” It also comes from the fact that I come from a long line of story tellers.

If you’ve ever listened to me speak on Turning Ideas into Income, How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are, or Outside the Box Career Planning, then you’ve heard me tell lots of stories. But having been in the speaking business for as long as I have, I know a lot of speakers who “pick up material here and there” but don’t always credit the here or the there. Like the corporate VP who attended an event I spoke at in Dallas last month who “jokingly” told me after my presentation that he was going to “steal” one of my stories. There’s no question he’ll use my story but somehow I have my doubts as to whether he’ll credit me as the source.

Precisely because I do know how these things go, I always make it a point to reference my sources. For example, when I talk about Dream Busters, I often repeat Barbara Winter’s marvelous exchange with a workshop participant who lamented that she, “always wanted to be a professional caricaturist, but everyone says there’s no money in it.” To which Barbara wisely asked, “And, how many professional caricaturists have you spoken with?”

And although quotes are public domain, I’m so fanatical about crediting my sources that I often find myself not only referencing the source of the quote but the person who turned me on the quote as well! For example, as part of that same story, Barbara Winter goes onto share a wonderful bit of Sufi philosophy that goes something to the effect of, “When embarking on a journey, never ask for directions from someone who has never left home.”

I’ve learned a ton from both Barbara Winter and Barbara Sher. And I like to think they have learned from me as well. We all have our own way of coming at a problem. It was my own personal process of taking the leap from the corporate world to self-employment that has had the most profound impact on how I approach a topic near and dear to each of our hearts – helping other people work at what you love.

Fearless Collaboration

I’m all for giving credit. But sometimes this business of claiming credit can go too far. For example, while in England delivering a workshop called Fearless Marketing, Barbara received an email from the people representing Rhonda Britten, author of a book called Fearless Living. Barbara was told to cease and desist using the word “fearless” in her materials, the insinuation being that Ms. Britten has a lock on that word. In mock retaliation Barbara and her sister decided they’re going to own the word “the.” Knowing a good idea when I hear one, I’m claiming the word “and.”

A similar thing happened to me a decade ago. After attending a conference where I’d handed out some flyers for my newsletter bearing the headline, “Do You Feel Like You’re Living in a Dilbert Cartoon?” I receive a similarly threatening letter from the law firm representing the company that had owned the rights to Dilbert products. Since my newsletter would in no way diminish their profits, in fact it may even enhance them, my little newsletter was in no way a threat. But then, if you have a “kill the competition” marketing mindset, then everyone is a threat.

Entrepreneur magazine is famous for taking people to court that use the word entrepreneur in their business name. And international powerhouse McDonald’s has stooped to suing local pubs owned by generations of McDonald families in Scotland.

What all of this means to you as an aspiring business owner is this: Just because you use common sense when marketing your business, doesn’t mean others will. On the other hand, don’t become be so protective of your work that you never get it there for fear that someone will “steal” your idea.

I’m a savvy enough to know that there are situations where you’d be wise to be wary of the competition. But for most small business owners, competition shouldn’t be an overriding concern. Not everyone gets that. When I tell my non-entrepreneur friends of my plan to train other people to set up their own creative career consulting businesses around the country, their response is always the same: Aren’t you training the competition?

I suppose I am. But the way I see it, is it’s a big world out there. I’m only one person and I’m not the least bit worried that a couple of dozen or for that matter a couple of hundred people doing what I do is going to put a dent in my business. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who are spreading the word that you really can make a living doing what you love on your own terms, the better!

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