Lori: I’m going to start today’s episode by leading with a bit of a story of what I learned over my years of running my business. When I started, I was ignorant and thought that I had to do it all on my own and figure everything out by myself even though I truly had no idea what I was doing! For some reason, I had the belief that when I figured something out, I shouldn’t share it with others because they should have to figure it out on their own as well. As I have developed in my professional career, my thoughts around that have evolved and I actually feel the opposite way now! A couple of years ago I attended a networking event and met a new agency owner. She was in the same mindset as I was when I first started my business so I offered to connect with her and I just shared everything I learned in the 10 years I had been running my business. She was amazed that I would be so open with my experiences and from that connection, we now have such an amazing relationship where we share wins and send opportunities to each other. That brings us to today’s topic which is cooperating with your competition.
Lori: Let’s dive into it! How would you two describe competition and co-opetition?
Erin: When we're looking for definitions of competition, I think the good thing that competition does is it drives us to do better! Ultimately, competition is about the drive to achieve. There are a bunch of unhealthy things that can go with that, but that's the part that we need to keep alive and we need to kindle in our business and throughout our business. But co-opetition is a behavior and it's the behavior that helps you do better, and that helps you be better. So who or what is a better resource for achieving greatness than other folks doing what you do? So the co-opetition is really about achieving with your peers.
Kris: When it comes to I guess the definition, I like to think of a pie and when it's competition, one company gets the whole pie and oftentimes there's a winner, and there's a loser because someone gets 100% of the pie and the other gets zero. But when it's co-opetition, there could be some sharing of the pie, and often, when we think about it in terms of business and going after a business deal and being rewarded and earning the business of a customer, my hope is that when we are cooperating with our peers to solve a problem for a customer, maybe the circumference of the pie can grow. Now, you might not get 100% like you were in competition, but if you're doing well for the customer, the customer wins and we win in helping to bring our strengths together to solve the problem for the customer.
Lori: At what point did you start to think differently about your competition?
Kris: I've always been an athlete, and I have been in individual sports like I ran cross country, and while there's a team aspect to cross country, there's also that individual aspect. I also played basketball and soccer where you need a team in order to succeed. I always loved team sports, and I loved bringing out the best in everyone that was competing and I feel like I learned that early on. Now, as I've grown and come to be a professional and I'm in my career and I'm going after business and running a company, I realize that we have strengths in our niche where we play and other friends and competitors out there who are competing for the dollars available inside a manufacturer, let's say, in a particular time period and they have dollars available. So we're kind of competing for those dollars, but to solve the problem for the customer, we can bring our strengths, but our strengths don't always meet the full needs of what the customer is looking for. So that's when I started to realize that if we bring these other people in who have these great resources and ideas, and the strengths and the gap areas that we don't fit, we could actually be stronger together!
Erin: When I began my endeavor in manufacturing, I was very wary and I wasn't sure who was okay to talk to. I was introduced to another E-commerce expert and I felt shocked, first of all, that they would want to have a conversation with me. Second of all, their transparency, their absolute delight and excitement for me that I was out there and I was going to be doing this took me aback. It wasn't very long after that, that I became part of this amazing network of other experts in our field, and it just transformed our attitude in our approach to business at Earthling, because we understood better after getting to know these folks what we were good at, and what wasn't necessarily our best specialty and where we should refine and where we should turn to others to get the benefit of their expertise. So I think a lot of it goes back to LinkedIn and the social selling experience that illuminated for me why co-opetition is such a healthy and productive way of doing business.
Lori: What are the risks and rewards of co-opetition and do you two have any specific examples you can share?
Erin: This is a good question because it gets into the uncomfortable parts of co-opetition. The risk is about the vulnerability that you have to bring to co-opetition and that vulnerability is the good part, but if there's any lingering anxiety, fear, insecurity behind that, it can damage relationships and impact your performance. So when you move into a cooperative relationship with someone, you need to do some self-reflection and know that that's where you want to be and what you really want to do. So the risk is that you don't do that self-reflection, you get into the relationship and you start having those sort of yucky territorial situations. Thankfully, there are a lot of advantages in terms of co-opetition. You asked me about an example so we had an opportunity that was an RFP which came into Earthling, and there were a couple of other agencies who specialized in different areas than we did, who we had worked with in the past on similar projects. They both approached me when I was new in my role and had the thought that I was gonna win at all so I said, "No thank you," which was naïve and dumb on my part, because had we worked together even though we did win the project, we still ended turning to them to get help. But I had done exactly what I described before where it sort of poisoned the well with my competitive thinking and was unable to make the best of the relationship. We did very well with the client, but the relationship was tense the whole time. After that, what I gained was knowing what our specialty was. When we respond to these RFPs, sticking to our specialty and are very comfortable reaching out to other folks for their specialties so that we can deliver the best product for the client.
Kris: For me, it's that disbelief that you might give away your secret sauce, that there's something special your organization is doing, and you have a way of doing it. I loved what Erin said about vulnerability and I also think that the dollar value change is something that is a risk, depending on how you might have planned for something as you've thought about it. When you asked for examples, I was just speaking to another woman yesterday and she's covering the aviation industry and the aviation industry is the industry that we would be a great fit for, but we just don't have a lot of experience. As I was speaking to her, I thought, "Wow, what an introduction and an opportunity for us," because she has credentials that we don't have, but would certainly be required, that could help us actually participate in a space where those credentials are required, and where there's a high level of regulation and other things happening. So it was just a great example of when you meet other people, and you think about places where you would like to take your business, some people may already be there, and they have the strengths around that area. Your product, your solution, your teams, may bring some very valuable aspects to that as well, but you need a way to get in because you don't have all of the experience that's needed. That's just a relevant example that came up with discussions yesterday and I think it just shows you that co-opetition can bring you into new markets or new places that your company can participate in if you're open to it!
Lori: How do you think the outside world perceives co-opetition?
Kris: Speaking about manufacturers as the target customer group for this conversation, I think they think they're winning when companies come together. I think that when they have a problem and need help, oftentimes, it's very difficult to evaluate and come to one conclusion that this vendor can do it all for us because more times than not they can't because there's a list of requirements, a list of needs and services that need to be provided and maybe the manufacturer doesn't have the experience or the capacity to do it themselves. So they are reaching out to others to help solve the problem and I think that they're going to expect more of that from vendors to be able to come together and collaboratively help them with their solution. I think it makes their job a bit easier because then they don't have to identify one and in the end, they're winning!
Erin: I think it's a good look because it just demonstrates skill and competence. Willingness to engage with your competition means that you understand the value to the customer and that that's your priority. In the conversation I had yesterday, we were talking about the transactional nature of business and how that can lead to a client or a customer feeling like they're just a transaction and not a person or a company. When you bring yourself, your competition, and your co-opetition partner to the relationship, that client knows that the value of what you're bringing is the priority, not just the transaction that you're trying to engage in with them. I also have a great example of just evidence that people love it. I don't know if anybody's on Twitter and has seen this sort of Twitter roasting wars that the fast-food restaurants do each other? First of all, it's hilarious and entertaining, but second of all, I think it's just a good look for all the brands because they are competing in a cooperative way which makes it a win-win for everyone. So I think it's a wise choice when you think about the customer perspective.
Lori: Heading into the future, what do you think will change in relation to competition and co-opetition?
Kris: It feels to me like more and more businesses are getting specialized and as we get specialized and focus on what we do well, we're going to need other organizations to help complement us to solve the big problems that come up in the world. So I think that this isn't going anywhere, in fact, it's going to be something that we're going to continue to see in the future.
Erin: I agree. You've heard of these two big news breakups recently with GE and Johnson and Johnson, these monolithic companies who it's not working out to do at all and be at all. That's sort of the inverse of what we're talking about today where somebody is trying to capture all of it, but it just can't hold. So as Kris mentioned, the specialization becoming the forefront of so many business models is going to drive a need for co-opetition, but then on top of that, we're going to have to develop the skills to do that.