Bashing My Competition, “Medal of Honor,” and the Worst Parking Lot In Princeton

Twice in the past few months I was talking with prospects who couldn’t decide whether to work with me or another marketing consulting firm. But here’s the thing: my competition’s tagline is: "Separate Yourself from the Competition, Then ELIMINATE them."


Competition: Good or Bad?

Let’s face it, eliminating the competition can be highly profitable. Think Bill Gates, Rockefeller, JP Morgan, and just about every monarchy on earth. When you’re the only choice, it’s pretty easy to become the obvious choice.

And let’s pretend for a moment that you could eliminate the competition, or to borrow another phrase from my competitor, "beat your competition into a demoralized, quivering pulp."  Would you want that? Would you be better off?  Would your customers?  Would the world?

And what’s the alternative? Mediocrity all around? Unambitious sameness? Lousy products and services?

In this issue, I’d like to share my thoughts about the pros and cons of competition.  If you’re uncomfortable about this aspect of business, about having to be better than someone else, about fighting for market share, about having "business enemies," then I guarantee you’re not being or doing your best. Yet if all you think about is defeating your competition, you’re not being or doing your best either.

Having a healthy attitude toward competition is one of the most liberating and powerful business tools you can possess.

"Competition" Defined

The word "competition" comes from Latin and means "to seek together." That’s cool, isn’t it? You and your competition are both striving for excellence, using each other as motivation.

Yet in ecology, competition refers to two organisms who simultaneously demand the same resources from their environment. It’s not about love and achievement, but life and death.

So which is it for us? Are we trying to better ourselves, or fight to the death?

Competition Sharpens Us

Here’s the obvious good news about competition: it makes us better. The Whole Earth Center in Princeton used to have a monopoly as the only health food market within 30 miles. Then a few years ago, Wild Oats opened half a mile away.  The improvements in the Whole Earth Center were rapid and staggering: store expansion, took credit cards, extended hours, Sunday hours, lower prices, more staff, and they finally paved the parking lot so it no longer resembled the set of Dune.

Customers had been suggesting and complaining about all these things for years. But it took a competitor to bring them about.

A study reported in the May 28, 2003 issue of Nature reports that playing an action video game like "Medal of Honor" for just 10 hours can significantly improve your visual skills. Your brain can process more of the world and do it faster. You can pick out new and relevant items in an ever-changing environment.

Does that sound like a useful business skill? If so, maybe you should go home early today and waste a few hundred Nazis at the Arnheim Bridge with your Enfield Mark 1 rifle. Because it seems that video games in general don’t have this effect. Only games in which you trick your brain into thinking that you’re about to be wasted yourself lead to such rapid learning.

At some level, you have to believe that competition is about survival in order to take the steps necessary to grow. Management consultants refer to this as the "burning platform" motivation. The Whole Earth Center changed not because they saw the light, but because they felt the heat.

Competition is a Distraction

Let’s not take this competition thing too far. In tennis, it’s good to know what the folks on the other side of the net are doing. It helps you know where to hit the ball. But at the moment of truth, when you’re swinging your racket, you’d better be focused totally on the ball. If you’re paying attention to the competition at that point, you miss your shot.

The best athletes know that the real competition is not external. It’s ourselves. Our own doubts, panics, chokes, distractions, false motivations, and overcompensations. Why do I handle all the really fast "fault" serves with ease, but return so many slow "in" serves into the net? It’s because of the internal game I’m playing, reducing my effectiveness when the perceived stakes are higher.

The true game of anything is the inner game.  The outer game is just a distraction. So be aware of your competitors, but don’t play the game against them. Play the game to be your best. Observe the competition, develop strategies in relation to them, but when it’s your shot, keep your eye on the ball. On how and how well you serve your customers.

Think Rival, not Enemy

Here’s where I part company with my own competition, the marketing firm that wants to "eliminate the competition" and "beat them into a demoralized, quivering pulp."  I find that language offensive and counterproductive. I suppose it appeals to some testosterone-driven, club-wielding part of myself, but equating business with war is just bad for business.

I prefer metaphors from the worlds of sports and nature. In sports, the best games and the best seasons are driven by rivalries. Think Yankees and Red Sox. Magic and Larry. Martina and Chris. Tiger and, uh, never mind.

The thing about rivals is that, most of the time, they really respect each other.  Sometimes even love each other. Because if it weren’t for Magic Johnson, Larry Bird could never have attained the heights he achieved. Chris Evert made Martina a much better tennis player than she would have been otherwise. Think of the boxers hugging each other after a tough match, one where they’ve been pounding the stuffing out of each other for 9 rounds. They need each other to achieve greatness.

You need your competition too. If you eliminate them, you’ll become Microsoft: putting out crappy products that malfunction all the time and satisfy no one.  You may even start treating your own customers like idiots and criminals. While the wealth of Bill Gates may be an aspiration of yours, I would hope for all our sakes that your commitment to quality and service takes precedence.

Think Niche

In nature, there are extinctions (where competitors are "eliminated"). But much more common is the driving force of evolution: differentiating into non-competing niches.  If you can develop your business to do things that no one else can, you can own a niche that only you can service.

For example, an acquaintance of mine is a financial planner. When she goes to Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, she is one of about thirty financial planners in attendance. She has differentiated herself by claiming a niche: she works with families of children with Downs Syndrome, helping them save for the child’s care and for their own long-term security.

Here’s the thing: financial planning is financial planning. Money doesn’t behave any differently if it’s going to pay for long-term care for a dependent child or it’s going to pay for a condo on the "The World" floating apartment cruise ship. But because my acquaintance targets this niche, she owns it. She’s the "go to" financial planner for families with children with Downs Syndrome. They refer and recommend her, and invite her to present at their meetings and write for their publications. When this community thinks "financial planner," they think exclusively of her. Very smart.

And here’s the good news: you are unique. There’s nobody in the world with your experiences, outlook, style, and abilities. Once you realize that your success lies in becoming yourself to the fullest extent possible, it’s easy to find and own a niche.

Competition is Fun

If you accept that competition sharpens you, helps you focus inwardly, pushes you to greater achievement, and encourages you to define yourself more clearly, then you can go out and compete in a spirit of play, rather than grasping survival. People don’t generally enjoy feeling like they’re under threat. But if we can get out of "survival" mode and play like our lives don’t depend on it, we and our customers and our competitors will all benefit.

After all, if I can stake out a different niche than my competition, they start to look more like potential business partners than enemies. I can feed them referrals, either for cash or consideration.  And they can do the same for me.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank my competitor for sparking this issue’s topic, and wish them the best of luck. If they don’t succeed in eliminating me in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be back with another issue of the Motivated Marketing Letter.

In the meantime, I’m going to look for a video game in which I drive around a health food store parking lot avoiding the Volvos and potholes.


I love the winning, I can take the losing, but most of all I love to play.
Boris Becker

Focus on competition has always been a formula for mediocrity.

You have no control over what the other guy does. You only have control over what you do.
A.J. Kitt

Every man in the world is better than someone else and not as good someone else.
William Saroyan 

Bonus Quotes

If you make every game a life and death proposition, you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.
– Dean Smith

What’s the use of happiness? It can’t buy you money.
– Henny Youngman

A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.
Emo Philips

Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; what matters is whether I win or lose.
Darrin Weinberg

I failed to make the chess team because of my height.
– Woody Allen

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