Competing together?

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I watched a film the other day about chefs who worked in top restaurants and fiercely competed to be recognised as the best. At some point in his career the best amongst them ended up in financial trouble and was hunted down by his debt collectors. He became so desperate that he was at the brink of committing suicide. It was then that his strongest competitor came to his rescue and helped him out. The troubled chef asked why he had done so and the answer was: “We need you. You are the best and you take us along to the next level. You force us to continuously improve and to excel ourselves.”
Closer to home here in Ethiopia, I once attended a meeting during which management discussed the marketing of one of their new technologies which was already being copied by others in town. The CEO then suggested to call a meeting with all producers of this new technology and discuss how to improve and maintain quality. Others in the meeting looked puzzled and asked why on earth they would do that. The CEO’s answer was simple: “If they fail, the entire new concept will fail and thus we will fail.”
Both cases underline the principle that we need competition to survive, move on and progress. This seems to go right against our gut feeling that we need to avoid competitors, fight them and try to get them out of business instead.
So, is there another way? Is there a way, whereby competitors benefit from each other, whereby there is a win situation for both? The word competition itself means that different actors compete with or against each other. This implies that where I win, others loose. Or when somebody else wins, I loose. In other languages, competition is sometimes more described in terms of concurrence or existing alongside each other. From this point of view, businesses can actually co-operate and support each other, rather than fight each other and be in each others way. We see the formation of associations, where common interests are advocated, defended and protected. Issues may be related to legislation, standards, information, policies, etc. Here business owners support each other in developing and protecting their sector. Within a sector, members of an association will encourage each other to uphold standards and quality. And where there are others offering similar services, you better be good for otherwise customers will go elsewhere. In this way competition serves as a motivator to perform better, a healthy situation.
Nevertheless, I see many business owners being afraid and suspicious of others who operate in the same sector. And yet this is not really necessary, if we try to turn our attitude towards competition around. Why worry if you know that you offer good quality and services in the first place? Secondly, consider yourself copied the moment you bring a new product on the market. Just make sure you are not sitting still and that you are already working on your next product or design. The copies may never reach the same standard as yours and you will have already moved on by the time the copies are available. Be a leader in your field. Keep moving on. Standing still is in fact loosing willingly as you allow others to overtake you.
Except making sure that what you offer is good and developing new products & designs, there are other strategies to remain ahead of the competition.  In the first place you can consider your prices, offer deals and provide extra services. Secondly, you can attract your customers by using different marketing strategies. Advertise, use commercials, offer season deals, include little giveaways in your packaging.
Instead of spending negative energy to take each other to court, a small toy or an extra free item may really boost your sales. Take a look at the big companies. There is no reason not to do something similar, be it at a smaller scale.
In conclusion I would like to make the following suggestions:
When you intend to start a business, be motivated by what you are good at, what you like and what the needs of the market are.
Don’t copy a business and expect to be successful simply because somebody else is.
Find your own special service and customers within a sector and define your “niche”.
Keep developing your business and be ahead of the rest. Be proud that others are trying to follow you.
Work together to develop and protect your sector. Realise that you need each other here, that you are interdependent.
Develop an attitude of concurrence, existing together. There is room for all.

Ton Haverkort
ton.haverkort@gmail.com