Wednesday

Competition



When I was starting my business in San Francisco, there was a very small group of people who were in the same line of work. We had our areas that we serviced and we all made a small but comfortable living. Then, all of a sudden, a major competitor decided to move to town. Someone with brand recognition, someone who had an established tribe, a great product, and an exciting reputation. Someone who, some felt, threatened our livelihood. And then, something sort of amazing happened.

At 8pm, on a Sunday night, at a Denny's in San Mateo, every swing dance teacher in the Bay Area sat down with our new adversary and knocked together what was, looking back on it, a fairly daring plan. It was a fact that this major competitor was moving to town, so the only thing to decide was how we were going to handle it. Not everybody agreed, of course. Those who got stuck on wishing that the inevitable wasn't going to happen didn't fare so well. There was definitely some upset coming from that side of the table. Those of us who had moved beyond the stages of grief and denial did much better. What we decided that night, in short, was that we were all going to promote each other's businesses. We would tell our students about other teacher's classes, put out fliers for other people's events, and encourage everyone who came to us to "shop around". It was both exciting and highly uncomfortable. Mostly because those of us who were small fish at the time had no idea if we were going to be able to keep swimming along peacefully, or end up on the business end of the food chain. We were going to leave that for the market to decide.

Nobody, not one of us, could have predicted what happened next. Instead of scratching for our piece of the pie, the pie got bigger. Exponentially bigger. The more aggressively that we encouraged people to go elsewhere and try everyone, the more loyalty and more new faces we saw. And it wasn't just us either, it happened to all the teachers, except for the ones that didn't follow the plan. They lost. Big time.

Beside the monetary success that came out of this situation, another even greater thing happened. We built a real community. San Francisco became the place to come and dance because it was a city without all the factions and infighting and stress that other scenes seemed to be plagued by. The attitude that the dance was more important than any individual brand created thousands of ambassadors out of our students. They took on the same attitude that the leaders did. Talk about amplification. These people were like Pentecostals after a tent revival. In the eleven years that we were active in the San Francisco swing scene, I think we spent less than a thousand dollars on advertising and I bet if you asked the other teachers who were around at the time, they'd tell you the same. It was that strong.

Having said all that, I'm certain that this kind of thing will not work in every situation. If you're a corporation who sells a widget and are competing with another corporation that sells a remarkably similar widget, you may not be able to work this kind of thing out. But hypothetically, if you're a crafter who does something general, like crochet, would there not be a benefit in joining forces with and promoting other people's crochet? Would both of your brands not be amplified? I mean, you have to join forces with the right people, but you can see how this might be dynamite, right?

What we have now, in the craft world, are a million individuals who are all competing for the favor of the handmade buyer. Far too many single people to pay attention to, and the number is growing daily. For most of you, your website, blog, storefront, and through social media are the only places that people can interact with your brand, unless you pay for advertising on other websites. The great thing about this other way is that it can be way more powerful than advertising. If you simply trade ads with each other, this probably won't work. But if you actively become ambassadors for the handmade world at large and spokespeople for each other, you will not only move more product, you'll build a real community around you and your brand.

34 comments:

  1. Yes. yes. yes. The knee-jerk reaction is to hoard your ideas, hoard your web traffic, hoard your energy ... waiting for the just the right moment or just the right opportunity. In the meantime, so many little opportunities pass you by. Things that, on their own, might not mean much, but over time might surpass all the grand plans you've been holding out for.

    When you send your energy out into the world, often, but not always, the world will send you back even *more* energy. Or, maybe more accurately, just the right amount of energy that you need. I don't know how this works, but sometimes it just does.

    Whenever I'm feeling scared about where I am, what I have to do, or where I have to go, I think of these Innocence Mission lyrics from When Mac Was Swimming, "Let's get out of the car with open arms, not wait to be embraced."

    For me, that image is all-powerful. It fills my chest with love and hope and joy. I feel like I can take deeper breaths. I can see more clearly. It erases all my fear. It's like armor.

    I want to be the one that walks into the room with open arms. Smiling.

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  2. I feel fantastic after reading your post - I was only just arguing this point the other day - I make children's clothes amongst other things but am always poiting out ther makers in the area and encouraging them to attend markets with me rather than worrying if this will create 'too much competition' - it's not about the competition it is about the community. When you spread the love about your fellow crafters it creates an atmosphere and a movement want to be a part of - and buy into - this can be only good. Thank you for putting all the rambling thoughts I've had lately into such a lovely thoughtful post

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  3. Well said. I'm visiting via a tip from Loz and Dinny who is the best at being an ambassador for handmade.

    I have to admit to having a tendency to worry (just a little) about competition and I think this is to do with a lack of confidence in myself and my own work. At least I recognise this and am fighting it! Your post makes it even clearer to me!

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  4. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Alice - Your comment was so beautiful. Perfect. I'm going to carry "Let's get out of the car with open arms, not wait to be embraced." with me all day. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and furthering the discussion.

    L&D - Thanks! I think spreading the love is the key thing. After rereading the post, I also want to add that you have to "mean it", it can't be a gesture. You have to be totally okay with this idea. Half measures don't work. When you're confident enough in your own work to be able to send your customers on to other people, you become a powerful attractor. By the tone of your post, I can tell that you are exactly that way. Thanks!

    BES - I encourage you to keep up the fight. Something quite amazing and unexpected will happen if you do. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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  5. Coperative competition! It's an interesting concept. In my main job we're the "big business" who've been running the longest, and there are lots of other clones/copies/similar businesses and even government provision. Strange as it may seem, we often find ourselves victims of cut-throat behaviour from smaller companies - stealing our flyers; hiding posters; upsetting, disrupting and undercutting relationships we've spend years building. But our founder's ethos is to rise above - sure, we'll take people to task for bad behaviour, but never copy it. When you get right down to it, what we all do is cool - who someone chooses to pay to teach it to them is their choice and you have to find the right fit. We're quite open about that - and you can't always have a class at a time to suit everyone, anyway! In general, we find that people come to us because we've worked very hard on our product and we don't badmouth the competition - and it really shows; we're going from strength to strength despite the recession whilst others are fading away. All product awareness is good awareness and building a reputation for yourself as someone who cares about the product and the process is more productive than scrambling for bums on seats any way you can. It also shows massive confidence in what you do (and I suspect can give the impression that you aren't desperate, you will always have demand, and hence you must be good? Marketing psychology is a fascinating black art!).

    In terms of crafting I cross-promote anything I love and anyone whose work I admire - that's just always been the way I've handled it in and it works beautifully. It's emotionally hard to promote other people's work which is similar to yours when money's tight and there's only so much in people's purses, but again it's about building a reputation and a network.

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  6. Caroline - Thanks for the comment. Seems like the next step might be to have a "Denny's" meeting with the competition and show them all the love you can. Your strategy of not bad mouthing the competition is strong. Emracing them, especially when they've "done you wrong", I think, is stronger. Having said that, I know how hard that can be. Thanks again for joining in!

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  7. Yes! The Dalai Lama said, "think in terms of enemies, and the only loser is yourself." Competition is trumped by cooperation, and that can build a real community.

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  8. Andy! Thanks for the comment. They don't call that guy the Dalai Lama for nothing! :-)

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  9. Another beautifully put post, Paul! It's funny, because I was just thinking about this topic last night. It's an especially difficult philosophy to pursue when times are so (economically) tough, and it's easy to retreat to a place of fear and selfishness, but that's actually the most important time to join forces. And trusting there is abundance just kinda ... makes that abundance happen, ya know?

    Really, though, I can't follow up more perfectly than Alice did. Alice: beautiful comment!

    Love your conversations here, Paul. :)

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  10. AJC - Thanks so much for the comment. I totally agree about the fear that can grip you when times are tight. Sometimes the universe doesn't operate with the kind of turnaround time that you wish it would and it's tough to keep your chin up and keep giving. But you're right on about trusting abundance. It's there. Thanks, as always, for adding value to the conversation!

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  11. Absolutely, I couldn't agree more. This is why I have no issues with promoting other artists on my blog. I am happy to point my readers in the direction of work that I think is interesting. It's both a way of them learning a little bit more about me and where my influences lie and a way of helping out other artists.

    See people in your field as your peers, not your competitors!

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  12. Kirsty - Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. BTW, I adore your blog post about "Art Wank" ( http://kirstyhall.co.uk/blog/2009/08/enough-already/). It's the most refreshing thing I've read all day. Cheers!

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  13. *nodding enthusiastically* I volunteer with an animal welfare group. When we started up, most of the groups in the area were of the "shelter evil - us saintly" mindset and the animals were the losers. We were far to small, and too realistic, to think we could solve the euthanasia and overpopulation issues by ourselves, so we approached the shelters and, later, one of the big pet store chains and asked to work with them.

    Seven years later only a few independent pet stores still sell rabbits and there are virtually no euthanasias for space reasons. We were told by several big, well-established groups that we were never going to succeed, but by working with our "rivals" and helping promote each other, like the SF dancers, we all won.

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  14. Bunny Queen - I LOVE that. I've volunteered at shelters as well and the inertia one must overcome to make anything new happen within that kind of broken system is enormous. Congratulations to you and your cohorts for making the lives of animals better through shifting perspectives. Much respect!

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  15. Another wonderful thing about competition: it pushes us into brave new creative territory. If you make things in a vacuum, you may never have an opportunity to learn and grow.

    When other people do the same thing as you, it's really a gift. Not only do you now have a set of like-minded peers (if you choose to embrace them that way), you also have some impetus to evolve. Who knows what kinds of wonderful originality will blossom from that?

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  16. Diane - Agreed. It makes you make your brand better. It makes you want to be more worthy of other peoples recommendation. And I agree about the gift thing. The most creatively fertile moments I've had have come when I have focused my energy outward, embracing the peer group. Thanks, as always, for stoking the fire.

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  17. Yes it reminds me of the "rugged individualist" mentality found very much so in our country. We're supposed to be very proud to strike out on our own, carve our own path, and rise to the top. Thats true even in so many parts of our alternative counterculture. I think autonomy and resting firmly on your own vision and path is important. but needing to be the ONLY one doing it is folly on a planet of billions of people.

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  18. Thank you for this post Paul! Every day I try to celebrate someone else's work, someone else's thoughts. In my ideal world, everyone does this for everyone in every field to highlight whatever they find interesting. I believe that it we would have a much happier world if this were so. This is also different from a "hey I posted about you, so now you should post about me" kind of thinking. Just celebrate without expectation of return.

    Thank you also for a very clear example of how cooperation was not in conflict with capitalism, but actually helped to expand the market. I think as long as we have a capitalist structure and believe that competition is the only path to success then we as a people are, by definition, dooming some people to have less and to suffer more. I also believe that its born of a sense of insecurity (not dissimilar to the thinking behind the post the other day on desire). Cooperative and celebratory thinking are the the only paths that I can see to healing society as a whole.

    Lastly, I applaud the idea to deal with this kind of stress head on instead of just grumbling about it or trying to just be an example of cooperation and hope that others catch on. That kind of boldness and risk taking is necessary for a major change like this, for truly building community. Thank you for that!

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  19. Anon - Thanks for the comment!

    Cianna - I LOVE this: "I think as long as we have a capitalist structure and believe that competition is the only path to success then we as a people are, by definition, dooming some people to have less and to suffer more. I also believe that its born of a sense of insecurity (not dissimilar to the thinking behind the post the other day on desire). Cooperative and celebratory thinking are the the only paths that I can see to healing society as a whole."

    Let's work on that! I'm in!

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  20. Yay! I have this sense that all around us, in a wide variety of fields and from numerous angles, people are rethinking the carved-up/isolationist/protectionist/competitive/me-first structures that have done so much damage. I can feel how many people are trying to work on building communities and connecting them together. We're going to be able to pull this off! I'm sure of it!

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  21. great post Paul. I keep a list of bookbinders near my computer for times when somone asks me for something I just don't do or don't have time for. I have emailed this list to many a customer and talked with those binders on more than one occasion. And the favor has been returned. A customer would rahter hear me say "I'm really sorry but I can't do this project right now, but let me refer you to XY and or Z who could take this on and I trust their work." By being honest with your customers you build their trust and by refering them out I gain trust in teh community. it's a win win.

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  22. Cianna - Yes please. Be sure to let me know when and where I can be of service.

    Les - Thanks for the comment! I always find that sending people "down the street" has the exact opposite effect you think it will. They come back like a darned boomerang.

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  23. Great commentary, a fantastic read and a nice look into the origination of swing dance in SF. Thanks, Paul ... no wonder I keep coming back to your site ;)

    - Ali

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  24. I haven't read all the comments, so I hope I'm not just being repetitive. Basically, I think what makes the biggest difference in the crafting community is our definition of success. The reason Amazon doesn't want to share anything is because it just wants more and more whether it needs more, or not. We who want to work independently and from the ground up measure success differently, I would hope. It's not just about money, it's not just about getting a brand out there, it's about creative spirit, freedom to make something unique, and the willingness to continually learn from others, grow, and have an exciting, creatively stimulating, life. If all I wanted to do was soulless repetitive work to make lots of money, I would want to keep my methods secret, too.

    Don't want that kind of life.

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  25. Wow, this is fantastic! One of the things I love most about the craft community is the wonderful sense of support and community that comes from people encouraging, helping and promoting each other. I just love it. And I love articles like this that pump me up and give me warm fuzzies at the same time. I'll be linking. Dude Craft- A place for warm fuzzies and awesome advice. =)

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  26. Rachel - Thanks for the great comment. I'm glad you liked the piece. I agree that cooperation is the greatest thing about any community.

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  27. Too true. I'm coming from a tech background, where there's a long history of open-source software, and more recently open-source hardware. There's a similar thing that happens there too - sharing ideas and working cooperatively creates a bigger pie, rather than you losing out on your piece. The Arduino electronics platform is a great recent example of this - without working together with people who are also trying to make money from the same sort of work, there would never have been this great community surrounding their projects.

    There's probably extensions of these ideas that apply really well to the patent system and innovation in a lot of industries, too. As well as interpersonal relationships - people who get jealous or feel threatened by others don't create the same sort of social bonds as those who are more self-assured. Or maybe it's just my neurons misfiring. It's getting late here ;)

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  28. Matt - Thanks! Interesting about the Arduino thing. I was just watching the documentary "RiP" yesterday and the mashup artist "girl talk" was talking about how bio-research is being entirely held up by intellectual property disputes and copyright nonsense, and how collaboration in that area might well be able to cure almost any disease on the planet. Staggering, the lengths we go to in order to hold on to our little crumbs. Thanks for the comment!

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  29. Yeah - biomedical and pharmaceutical were two of the fields I thought of first when you referred to situations where this approach wouldn't work. Not necessarily because I think it wouldn't work, but because these are two fields where the industry practice seems to be most heavily weighted towards adversarial competition. The standard response is how high the cost of research is. Seems to me like there's enough riding on progress to try a different approach though.

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  30. Here it is 5 months after the last post and I am leaving a comment anyway! This theory is truly a good one. As I read the post I realized that I AM doing it already! I am a relatively new shop but now I believe that if I promote other shops a bit more often then I will be practicing what you have preached! This all makes so much sense to me. Thank you for solidifying what was rolling around in the back of my mind!

    Aunt Karen's Creations

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