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Is having competition in small business something to worry about? For some, it’s all they worry about. And for some, they live and breathe the fears that having competitors brings them. But is having competition really a bad thing? Well, I don’t mean to sound judgmental, but it’s a question of just how much of a grown up you are.

I’ve felt the sting and pressure of competition myself, more than once. And, truth be told, not always handled it like a grown up. I’ve let things upset me when they shouldn’t, and felt uncomfortable when I didn’t really need to, and let things affect decisions I made when they were my decisions and no-one else’s. I tell you this because, after all, what use am I to you if I have never experienced any of the things I talk about and cannot identify with how it is possible to work through them.

The thing about competition is that in a lot of cases, the competition is all in your head. Yes, you might offer a similar product or service to a similar market to someone else, however if you really honestly look deep into what you do and what you offer, chances are you will have something that is unique to you. You might on the outside sell the same product, but customers buy more than a product they buy an experience and connection with you, albeit in some cases very brief (eg in the instance of purchasing a piece of horse gear for example).

Sometimes, it’s more in your face than in your head. That’s when one of your competitors is having a less-than-grownup moment (or month, or year) and feels that they need to respond to things you do, subtly not naming you but they might as well, and if they are being super-childish, actually even bag you out (with or without naming you, we all know you can make a lot out of inference, right? Connect the dots? You don’t have to name someone to be bagging them…). They might bring out the same special, offer the same item you sell for $1 less, ‘borrow’ your wording, or even be so spiteful as to make comments about things you say and suggest why what you are saying is wrong. Yes, I can say all of this because every single one of those things has happened to me.

What took me ages to work out though was the really important thing here. All of those things were their problems, not mine. I was just making them my problem by allowing them to affect me. In fact, every situation I described above was one competitor or another feeling insecure, unconfident, or unable to think for themselves, and I was the (un)lucky one to bear the brunt of their problems. Possibly just the wrong place at the wrong time, there was nothing special about why it was me copping it. But it was nothing to do with me, and all to do with how their insecurities were failing them.

I spent quite a few years selling an equestrian product that eleventy-million other people decided were also the best idea for them to sell. As time went on, each year another heap of businesses popped up doing something similar to what I was doing, but I kept going, and I stayed successful. People close to me would often send me links to competitors websites or facebook pages and say ‘oh, look at what they are doing, you should do that’. I always felt like there was a fine line with that kind of thing. There is keeping up with fashion, and then there is following the crowd. I have never really been much of a follower, so I continued to do my own thing as much as possible. I have always like to do my own thing no matter what everyone else is doing.

When I was 26 I sat my STAT test. STAT was (at the time) tertiary entrance exam to get into Uni as I had not done year 12 at school I had gone to TAFE in year 11. The written element was a few thousand word essay. They gave you about 8 half sentences, you could choose one and write your essay using their half sentence as a starting point. About 50 people sat the test, and at the break a lot of us chatted about which one we chose. I seemed to be the only one that chose the one I wrote about. It started with “I am a non-conformist …” I was inspired from the moment I saw it and I wrote and wrote furiously, idea after idea pouring out. I got top marks for it too but that’s not the point. The point is, that’s me, I don’t conform a lot, don’t need to, don’t want to, sometimes find myself trying to and it never quite works out then I remember it’s ok to be ‘me’.

People often say to me ‘but what if they say something nasty to other people about me?’. Well, there’s a number of responses I could run with here but the fact remains, only YOU control how you feel, so whilst you cannot control what others say about you, you can control your response and your feelings. I would then suggest that if people are the kind of people to listen to someone deliver unkind, hell, let’s just call it bitchy, gossip and probably half truths (or just flat out lies as I have seen myself) about you or something you do, then really, is the person that believes it and takes it on someone you want to be around and deal with? I think not. That is taking it to an extreme though, something that has become clear to me in the last few years is that people can offer what sounds like the same product or service on the surface, but when you look at it, they are coming from a totally different angle and have something different to offer when it comes down to it. There will always be people that ‘get where you are coming from’ and people that ‘don’t get you’. Just worry about the ones that ‘get you’. You will find that people that share your values, will connect better with you. People that have different values (and not saying they are better or worse, just different) will connect with different kinds of people. Leave them to each other.

There are plenty of fish in the sea, and to expand that idea, there are all shapes and sizes and colours to suit everyone. You just need to find what kind of fish you want and need, and just fish for that kind, let the others have their own kinds of fish.

So how can we learn to not let competition bother us? There’s lots of ways, but here’s a few ideas I have that I have employed whilst striving to deal with the competition worries I have felt in the past.

Be confident in what you do.
You have a plan, you know what you are doing, right? Then why are you worrying that your competition might not like something you do? That’s their problem not yours. Just get on with what you are doing, do your own thing, and do it confidently. You might not do everything the same as your competitors, learn to be ok with that and happy with the decisions you made for yourself. I often hear people say ‘oh but I do that such and such might get upset’. Ok well they might. That’s their thing. If you are not doing anything directly TO them then just get on with what you do confidently and let them worry about themselves. Chances are they are not sitting there worrying about your feelings.

Learn to share.
The ‘plenty of fish in the sea analogy’ again. But it’s even more than that. Let’s say for instance you have a business that goes out and does trade events. You might have a competitor turn up regularly that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable (because to be honest, you feel threatened because you lack confidence in what you do) or they may have even at one point said something less than nice to you. Remember again, someone saying something not nice to you is more an indication of their problems and insecurities and less of an indication of anything to do with you. You are both going to keep coming to these events so you have pretty much two options. One, ignore them, avoid all contact, get there early to get a better spot, try not to bump into them at lunch and toilet breaks, and keep an eye on them all day to see what they are doing and how you can do better. Or two. Rise about the feelings and say hello to them, be comfortable standing next to them in the line for a burger, and not spend a moment thinking about what they do in their store. You may never be friends, but you have a connection in that you both run a business with a similar market. Find the differences, and be ok with them. Be the grown up and play nicely in the sandpit.

I had a client contact me quite upset recently that a competitor was claiming she had a patent on a particular product and was going to take legal action against her for copying her product. My first question was, of course, ‘did you copy her product’ and we established that in fact my client had been in business quite a few years longer than the other, the product was something that over half a dozen companies made (and that was with less than 10 minutes research) and in fact there was no patent (people that make that threat perhaps don’t understand what a patent actually is and how involved and expensive the process is). It was more just that she had just learned how to promote herself a bit better and her competitor became aware of her. That kind of thing is just threatening, scare tactics, and in my opinion there is no place for it. My suggestion is in that case, know if you have done the right thing or not, and don’t get drawn into a discussion about it, you only have to answer to yourself, no-one else. I would choose to not respond to things like that if I was confident I had not done anything wrong. Others may not agree and may feel the need to discuss, and that’s ok too, whatever works for you personally. In this case, the competitor possibly needed to learn to share in the sandpit a bit better, because that experience sure left a sour taste.

Don’t buy into your competitors.
You might be the kind of person that follows your competitors Facebook pages, websites, signs up to their mailing list with your partner’s email to see what they are doing, whatever. Goodness me, even Facebook encourages it offering you to compare stats on competitors pages. If you do any of that, good for you, but you are buying into your competitor more than you need to. There is a difference between obsession about your competitor and just knowing what your competitors do, and I think many people walk a fine line between the two and fail to see it.

I know someone who had a competitor do some fairly childish things aimed at her, no names were named, but intentions were clear and it was four year old behaviour masked as a business saying why they were better than the competition. She then set about obsessing about her competitor and getting wildly upset when she saw anything her competitor posted on Facebook, even if it was nothing to do with her, the mere idea of the competitor rattled her and it became a big thing for her. A problem easily solved in fact. There is a magical little button on Facebook to say ‘never show me things from xyz’. So we set about taking that step, she clicked that and no longer has things pop up in her newsfeed on Facebook that disturb her. After all, she can’t control what her competitor does so why obsess over it?

Take it as a compliment.
If you see things that are clear your competitors are watching you, they might discount their product lower than yours, make comments about yours, or if they are really brazen, borrow your ideas or words and use them as their own. There’s not a lot you can do about it, but you can choose to get upset about it, or take it as a compliment. After all, it means they think your business is worth watching and are clearly following you. Be the leader they are looking for. Think of yourself as their unofficial mentor (and yes, it is ok to have an evil grin as you think that, I will give you that).

Stay on your own path.
You made a decision, set some goals, and are following your dreams, right? Don’t let someone else step on those dreams, and YES you can control that. You just keep heading in the direction you are heading and move around the roadblocks and keep moving, no matter what other people are doing. Do your thing. All you need concern yourself with is what you are doing, and whether it is working for you (and making you happy). You know what Dory says? Follow her advice… (Just keep swimming, just keep swimming)

Remember that what defines you is not what people say about you, nor what you say about others. It isn’t even defined by how successful, rich, educated or beautiful you are. What defines you is how to respond to the challenges you face and what you do when things go wrong.

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