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.