On Competition in Business

I have a feeling I’m going to be stepping on some toes this year. In fact, I know I will. So I’m writing this NOW as it’ll be a point of reference for me LATER.

This is an overdue post, by the way. I posted this last week for our team as a reminder when competition creeps ever closer to us this year.

So let’s start it out real straightforward:

If you are in business, and you are in the most minimal sense successful at it (meaning you make money and doing something fun), you WILL have competition.

It’s a fact and a reality of entrepreneurship.

Someone, somewhere is competing with you NOW. Or will be shortly, especially if there are customers in need / want of what you provide to them … and willing to pay you enough money to support your life and business.

Period.

And getting down to the foundational issues here, let me say:

You don’t OWN your customers.
You don’t OWN the market.
You don’t OWN the product space you’re in.
You don’t OWN the partners or people you work with.

They can go anywhere else they want.

And while we’re talking about it … you don’t OWN innovation either … I guess you could get a patent for something (and there are patent trolls as well) … but you don’t OWN the fact that someone could kick your ass at doing what you do better.

Every idea you’ve had … someone else had it before you. It’s been thought of or done. The difference is … someone executed on it.

This Bible verse is pretty appropriate and I’m always reminded of it when someone thinks they are the first to do something:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Oh, one more … even though you might legally OWN a phrase about your product … you don’t OWN mind share of that phrase and who your customers really think is “the best” or the real solution.

Actually … the best you can do (or hope for) is to HOLD ONTO your customers, market, product space, innovative edge, mindshare and people.

Holding onto them is a simple formula: You continually serve them well and consistently provide more value than the competition (or what they pay for your product or service).

Improve.
Innovate.
Serve.

That’s what we’ve tried to do every day at iThemes as the competition has gotten more and more fierce.

As I’ve mentioned to many people before, nearly every day since we started iThemes five years ago, there has been a new “competitor” to us pop up.

(Heck, some of our competitors are also some of my best friends in life!)

Ask some of the early guys around WordPress, or anyone who’s been in business for any length of time and you’ll hear the same thing.

Even as we celebrate our fifth anniversary, we have just enough time to pinch ourselves while we look back … then we need to get back to work on these three words: Improve. Innovate. Serve.

But here’s the thing most entrepreneurs won’t readily admit:

We all hate competition.

We loathe it. We’d prefer it not exist. We secretly wish our competition’s demise. And however nice we might play, we want them to shut their doors. And the faster the better.

… because we think in some enormously egotistic way that we are entitled to be the SOLE providers of any specific product or service to the world. Forever.

(If you meet an entrepreneur who says he or she doesn’t battle it, they are lying, by the way.)

The beauty of capitalism is that almost anyone can start a business. Which means you. But the sucky part for us entrepreneurs is … ANYONE, not just you alone, can start a business and compete with you.

My friend Jason Schuller said this to me this week on this subject:

“There is no ‘late to the game’ in this business. As long as you have something original and unique to offer, there is room.”

So that’s the reality of entrepreneurship … and like has happened to me for the last five years … I’ve gotten my toes stepped on by someone else encroaching on what we’re doing and yes, God forbid, competing with us.

And I’m finally past the point of thinking the polite thing to do is not to step on other’s toes too and [gulp] compete with them too.

But it’s time.

I can still play nice and do right by people while playing fairly and ethically … WHILE stepping on your toes. After all, no one has asked permission to step on ours.

And I’m finished thinking I have to ask permission or get an OK from someone to move our business in the direction we feel it should go. (I love my job and want to do it as long as I can. So does our team. Therefore, we’re going to do what we think is best and right for all of our futures.)

And I won’t stand still. Standing still is a sign of plateaued and being plateaued in medical terms equals flatlining, or death. We’re not dead.

And I won’t hold our business back any longer for a notion of some misguided form of business etiquette when it hasn’t consistently been returned, and frankly will never be (and shouldn’t). In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to make friends … only to see we were truly only acquaintances. Or umm, competitors.

So you don’t have to like me. I’m finally OK with that now. (I probably won’t like you much.)

And you don’t have to like having me as a competitor. I’m OK competing with you because it’s about relevance and what the present and future of what we’re building together here. (And frankly we’re going to seek to kick your butt squarely while doing it.)

I’m OK with our customers deciding who’s better and who wins too. So should you. (Some customers might deserve you.)

You’ll say we’re dumb. You’ll say we’re naive (and we probably are). You’ll say we can’t come close to what you’re doing because it rocks. You’ll say where either too far behind, or just don’t know what we’re doing.

Don’t worry … we feel the same way about our work.

So there it is …

You might feel some increasing pressure on your toes and it might be me … and you probably won’t like it because you, like me, thought we were friends and we’d never enter the territory you OWN.

So in advance, I’m going to offer you a polite but truly unapologetic “sorry,” which is probably better than saying “welcome to the world of business.”

I will however offer some authentic advice for how I deal with competition if you want it. (If not, go be pissed off and implode. I’m sure the fireworks will be enjoyable.)

***

My experience and advice on dealing with competition

You don’t have to like competition, but you can USE it.

For the first couple of years, we got consumed with our competition — or what someone else was doing. So much so that we got distracted and almost lost in it.

Don’t let competition be a distraction … let it motivate you to be and do better for your customers.

Take the energy (and rage) you have about competition and redirect it toward innovating and serving your customers.

It’s why I’ve said repeatedly that the only thing that matters is YOU, YOUR LOVED ONES, YOUR TEAM and YOUR CUSTOMERS.

Everything else is noise, waste, distraction, and dumb. (Excellent advice from LSW)

Be proud about your work and business … but don’t get obsessed with how good you are because someone else is plotting your demise … or to show everybody your receding hairline.

Competition keeps us honest and humble.

Here’s what we seek to do when something comes up that irritates us regarding competition: We take a moment and let that competitive rage sweep over us … then we refocus on what truly matters – us and our customers — and redirect that energy on kicking ass for them.

So … here are the steps again:

1. Admit and accept competition is a reality of doing business.
2. Use the energy you get from competition to improve, innovate and serve your customers BETTER.
3. Remember it’s ONLY about you, your team, your customers while doing it.

When that doesn’t work … find some Tums and a good counselor.

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17 thoughts on “On Competition in Business”

  1. AMEN Brother!

    The flip-side is the competition that thinks they don’t have any. Especially in our industry. They are put on a pedestal by the community and others around us.

    “No one can do it better.” “These people are the best.”

    Until something proves they they aren’t, they don’t specifically fill a need, or they simply don’t deliver on the promise everyone raves about.

    And you’re dead on: Don’t be afraid. No one asked you if it was ok to make another backup plugin — so don’t be mad when I do. (kidding!)

    Point is, even with all the competition there’s still plenty of room for something that fits another need, audience, or hands down does it BETTER.

    It’s not like we’re manufacturing paper or staples.

    • I go out of my way to help my true friends. And never seek to step on their toes. In fact, haven’t done things specifically because I’m loyal as a Lab.

      This post is also a reminder never to get so prideful in what we do that we miss out on what matters most.

      Kick some ass in 2013, man!

  2. Great post Cory! I’m right there with you! At times we can get so focused on what our competition is doing, that we can easily forget what we are trying to achieve. Finding the balance is hard, especially when you have small teams that are doing all of the marketing, sales, development, support, etc. I applaud you for saying what I think others in the WordPress community have not.

    • Thanks AJ – I hope that doesn’t get missed in this post … even as I was writing it, the core is being and doing better and not forgetting the right stuff.

  3. Hey Cory,

    I enjoyed this post. I could relate to it even though I’m in a different industry — freelance copywriting.

    Competition keeps us humble, honest, and… driven. Or at least it ought to. 🙂

    Ryan

    • Woot! I remember talking to this guy from Kansas a while back about WordPress and the GPL and their awesome theme. 🙂

      Had no idea he’d become one of my best buds!

  4. Awesome Cory, the post really hit home with a few of the comments and what I’m trying to do this year. Having no team is hard but having friends to bounce ideas off has really helped me. These friends are traditionally “competitors” doing the same thing as I do a lot of the time. I, and they, don’t care, you don’t always have to dominate a market to “win”.

    Looking forward to seeing what you have in store!

    • Joel, great points … I think competition is great for customers / clients. And winning to me means making money doing what we love while serving people we enjoy.

  5. We had two very interesting things happen to us at the end of last year.

    We actually meet our main competitor at a conference, and over a few beers got really taking about business. Turns out the competitor we have put on a pedestal for many years and thought was the market leader, actually thought the same thing about us. That illusion just shattered over night, and seemed to unleash us.

    The second was our one of our top search terms became “alternative to (our brand name)”

    Food for thought!

    Inspiring post Cory.

  6. Wow… that was quite the article, Cory! Appreciate your honesty. Brutal as it may be… it’s the truth. I get caught up in this a bit too much, myself…. even at our miniscule level of business.

    But these days there’s a new spirit flowing here. Instead of looking at anyone else… I, like you, am observing and trying to see my own gifts, in depth. Trying to sweep the cobwebs of negativity and “I can’t” out of the way and look at what I’ve been given within myself. What can I really contribute to my customers and those yet-to-be customers.

    It’s a fascinating ride; the ups and downs… and tough, too. I just keep reminding myself (at 63 yrs.) that I’m part of a larger plan that I cannot control… and I try to see the wisdom of what is unfolding and trust it. After all.. it’s taken care of me pretty well so far!

    Best to you guys at iThemes. Love the system you’re building. Great products and fantastic support! Keep going!

  7. Hi. It’s me from 2016.

    Oh I had so much with competition! I’ve been defamed, threatened in a dark parking lot, and many many more. Yes, I love the idea of competing for it challenges and dares an entrepreneur to think outside of the box and out of the wrapper of the box as well. But, some owners eventually become unethical when they are already on the top and do not want to be replaced. Instead of finding other ways to innovate, they threaten the newbies and that’s far from HEALTHY competition. I was a victim but still I am fond of competition. I’ve learned so many things, including the dirty tactics that INDECENT business people do just to fulfill their greed.

    God bless them.

    • Corruption is not competition.

      DIshonest, unethical conduct means you’re a fake and fraud, not a true competitor.

  8. When I read this post the first thing that popped into my head was House of Pain, Runnin’ Up On Ya …

    “I’m runnin’ up on ya
    I ain’t gonna’ warn ya
    I’m commin’ ’round the corner
    I ain’t gonna’ warn ya”

    That’s what I think about competition. It’s fierce and deadly at times. It can cause anger, jealousy, anxiety, fear, and more. Use the energy to step on those toes and kick some ass.

    I also used to worry about what others thought about my business decisions and felt at times I needed to ask for permission to build a business service or product in our industry too. Not anymore — thanks to some guy named Cory who gave me a match and some gasoline to set the world on fire.

    Brother, you know I walked with you in the early days and I’m stoked to see you doing what you believe is best for you, your team, and the industry. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Time for me to go run up on someone.

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