Just because someone is a competitor, you can still help one another.

A few weeks ago I organised a little bike ride with a few like-minded people. For some crazy reason, it seemed like a good idea to ride 1125km over six days throughout the middle of NSW. Apart from the sore bottoms, aching wrists, bruised hands, tired feet and sheer mental exhaustion, it was a raging success.

While sitting on a bike for up to 12 hours a day, you have some time to think…and think…and think.

One item that occurred to me while taking it easy in the peloton was the idea of co-opetition and how those principles can apply equally to riding a bike and improving a business. In a bicycle race, the fiercest of competitors will often work together to conserve energy by drafting in a peloton. There are no written racing laws as to how often each rider needs to sit at the front of the peloton to take the brunt of the wind but riders in a group will always know if everyone has shared the workload.

Despite the fierce competition, the racers are pragmatic and they realise that by working with competitors it can improve the outcomes for everyone.

That same mentality of the peloton can be applied directly in business. One of the real secrets that I will often see in successful businesses is an attitude of working with others. That may mean working with other experts or advisers but it may also mean working with ‘competitors’. As nice as it might seem, having a monopoly is probably unrealistic. If you accept that there are always going to be competitors, then learning to work with those competitors can actually push you ahead of your competition.

Think about some items at a granular level. Your business may focus on infrastructure development using local servers but you have some clients where a hosted solution would be perfect. Rather than try and develop multiple areas of expertise, you may partner with a ‘competitor’ who specialises in hosted solutions. You retain the relationship with the client but you are confident the right solution is being delivered by people who have the necessary skills.

The three alternatives seem far less attractive. You could provide a solution using your existing skills, which may not be the best solution for the client; you could try and have every skill covered by your staff which would be difficult or you could tell your client that you can’t provide a solution and let them find another provider. None of these alternatives seems that attractive compared to partnering with a competitor.

I have performed consulting work for clients where I have strongly suggested this course of action. It scares the pants off some people. Many businesses have created an image of a competitor as one step below the devil so suddenly deciding to jump in bed with them is a big step. The reality is that I am yet to meet any competitor who has horns hidden under their hat or drinks blood at lunchtime. Having said that, it is crucial that you share some common principles with any business that you decide to partner with. Ringing a competitor and asking them for a coffee meeting will usually give you a feel for their attitudes and values – and it is often surprising how many philosophies you have in common.

As much as we all like to think we are different (read better) than our competition, the harsh fact is that there probably isn’t a lot of difference among most competitors.

There are three ways to guarantee you can offend any male: tell them they aren’t very good at driving a car; tell them they aren’t very good at procreation or tell them their business is not much different to the competition. I have offended many clients telling them the third item (I tend to leave the first two alone) but if you can accept the fact that you are similar to your clients, you can grow your business significantly by working with your competitors.

Just as in the peloton, working together will help both you and your competitor, and if you can accept that, you can realise significant benefits.

Mathew Dickerson has since started a total of six small businesses.

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