One of the most important elements of business success is competitiveness. Business thinkers write about it, business owners talk about it, and entrepreneurs worry about it. I have received more than one phone call from new business owners worried that they are not competitive enough to launch a successful business. Which is simply confirmation that, despite all the discussion about competitiveness, very few people really understand what it means.
For most people, our exposure to competitiveness is related to childhood sports or academics. We grow up thinking that the people who train the most or study the hardest or are the most relentless are the most competitive. While there’s no doubt that drive is a part of competition, the true definition of competitiveness is the differentiation. The person who can run the fastest is the most competitive in a footrace – whether she trained for years, or just slipped out of her high heels on a whim and took off. While drive, discipline, or even aggression can sometimes be contributors to success, these attributes only matter if your end result delivers the desired prize.
Plan Your Race Carefully
Runners self-select into different aspects of the sport. Some are sprinters, some are jumpers, and some are long-distance. Most will excel at a few of these, but rarely are the sprinters also the cross-country warriors. You don’t have to be competitive in every type of running to win a Gold Medal – you just have to be competitive in your chosen heats. The same is true with business competitiveness.
To be competitive in business, you must match your talents (services, products, identity) to your potential markets. If your talent is to create extremely high-end, scrumptious, gold and diamond jewelry, you know that your market will not be high school girls. But your target is not the “32 to 48-year-old female self-purchaser with a professional career” demographic either. Even though that category is likely a closer match to your offering, it’s still very broad, and made up of many many different types of women with different aspirations, values, and purchasing behaviors. You have to figure out which heat is yours to win.
And what does winning the race look like in this example? The Gold Medal is to achieve your sales and profitability objectives and to create a sustainable business with tangible market value. To be competitive, you have to identify the group of people to whom your product or service matters, and give them a reason to buy from you instead of from someone else. (For a previous blog post on how to do this, click here). This is the heart of competitiveness.
Train Train Train
Here’s where the discipline and determination that are powerful contributors to competitiveness come in. You can’t just set your market target and then forget about it. Being competitive – i.e., winning the results you want – requires constant attention, correction, refinement, and practice.
I was speaking with a potential new client today, a luxury retailer in a very high rent market. I asked a lot of questions about his business performance, and he was able to answer each one with accuracy and confidence. When I asked about his customer profile he said, “That’s where I think we need your help. Our customer profile feels less focused than it used to.” This is an example of someone who is in it to win it. He is so aware of his own business that he can feel when he’s off. He approaches every day as full-on training.
Your Race is Your Own – Don’t Copy Anyone Else’s
Another competitive mis-step is to copy what other businesses are doing. If another business in your competitive space is already doing something, the market doesn’t need you to do it too. You have to do something else. Just remember, when you’re playing follow-the-leader, the leader will always cross the finish line before you.
You Can’t Win a Race Looking Over Your Shoulder
Some business-owners are so terrified that a competitor is gaining on them that they can’t stop looking over their own shoulder. They vigilantly patrol their market space for copy-cats and encroachers, and they waste precious energy and business focus looking at the wrong things. Of course, if someone egregiously infringes on your business, you need to deal with it, but in most cases these caboose-fixated folks are trolling for the mere threat of competition. If you try to run while looking backward you’re bound to fall on your face, and that’s virtually what happens to business owners with this competitive problem.
If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Not Doing it Right
The best athletes in the world compete for the love of their sport. No amount of money or prestige can make all that practice and sacrifice worth it. They may not feel like practicing every single day, but nine out of ten days they are doing what they love to do. When I tell people they need to have more fun at work, a common impulse is to start doing Friday pot lucks or monthly pizza parties. Hey, food is fun, but that’s not really what I mean. You need to love what you do to show up every day in your game clothes.
So to all of you out there who aren’t particularly competitive (in the generally accepted sense), who don’t feel the thrill of cutting throat, who are more likely to shed tears than shake your fists at defeat, worry not. Being competitive is about differentiating, practicing practicing practicing, and never looking over your shoulder. It’s OK if you still let your older sister win at Monopoly. Follow these concepts, and you can still win at the competition of business.