Collaboration is one thing, but collaborating with your competition?
“Instead of just going head-to-head as foaming-at-the-mouth competitors, think of ways you can partner,” says Josh Linkner, four-time tech entrepreneur, New York Times best-selling author and keynote speaker. “There are countless opportunities to partner with people or businesses you previously considered your competition.”
Linkner runs a mastermind group for keynote speakers who support one another with best practices and referrals. “The tips I share with these other speakers could mean I lose engagements to [them],” he says. “But I would rather that we grow together as competitors, elevating one another and our industry, than to lose to others in the marketplace.”
To brainstorm ways to align yourself with competitors, consider these strategies:
- Share resources. It can make sense to share technology for greater gains in the market overall. Dell, HP and Emerson agreed to use Intel processors in their respective laptops and tablets. This helped to create an industry standard, improve online security and collectively gain market share against Apple’s iOS. In the early 1990s, KLM and Northwest Airlines were the first in the industry to share routes and create joint-operated flights to fill more seats and boost profitability. The rest of the industry has followed this model.
- Join forces to beat the big guys. Small businesses can leverage a partnership to compete with a big competitor. Consider coming together to buy inventory or vendor services in bulk. Blue Moon Fair Trade partners with three other fair-trade retailers to combine trans-Pacific shipments, saving all of them up to 40% in shipping and paperwork expenses.
- Team up to attract the big guys. You can also attract big clients by collaborating with competitors. Joseph Marshall, president of Signal 88 Security, partnered with similar local competitors to submit a joint proposal to provide security services for the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
- Improve visibility. Think trade shows, which showcase multiple competing brands. The New York International Auto Show features vehicles from dozens of manufacturers—all of which view the event as a worthwhile opportunity to promote their latest models to more media and potential customers than independent efforts could net.
- Elevate best practices. By collaborating with other successful entrepreneurs you respect, you establish industry standards and position yourselves as thought leaders. Look to the creation of a trade association or conference, or sponsoring an independent research report on your industry. All of these serve to bring positive media and customer and colleague attention to those leading the efforts.
- Cross-refer. Physicians do this all the time. A specialist will refer patients requiring specific care to a partner who provides that care, and vice versa. Identify a service your clients often need and a similar business specializing in that complementary service or product. Reach out to them with a proposal detailing how you can support each other, but first, establish why your idea is a win-win for both companies. “Focus on articulating the why of your ask to disarm them,” Linkner says. “Don’t just call up and focus on tactics.”
Founder and owner
Business: Junket: Tossed & Found, an online vintage boutique
Alliance: Kearns joined forces with other vintage retailers in a single commercial corridor, ultimately attracting city support, media attention and foot traffic.
Results: As of 2018, there were 11 retailers within Minnehaha Mile proper.
In 2013, I opened my retail store in a blighted commercial corridor. There was one other vintage retail store in the area, and it was open two weekends per month. I approached them and asked if they would like to coordinate similar hours. They were open to collaborating.
Soon after, two more resale stores opened in the same district, and they also got on board with our hours. Since the stores are all several blocks apart, we each made an effort to verbally refer our customers to the other retailers. Then, six months later, we all sat down and agreed to formally organize ourselves into a shopping district, which we call Minnehaha Mile.
The antique and resale industry is notoriously catty and competitive. I didn’t want my business to be like that. Resale shops do not inherently compete with each other—we all offer something different. What we sell is not a commodity. There are other vintage stores scattered throughout Minneapolis. But by banding together, the Minnehaha Mile retailers created an actual shopping district and attracted more customers than we could individually.
Through this we applied for and received a $3,000 grant from a city business association, which we used for branding efforts. This drew media attention and visibility, as well as other retailers, to the city. Together we created a map of our district showcasing all the retailers. We meet twice monthly to plan events. For example, we partnered with a local animal shelter, in which we showcased senior—“vintage”—dogs up for adoption, fitting in with our mission to support vintage goods. We’ve also coordinated with upcoming road construction in the middle of our district. A café in the district donates the use of a room so we can meet.
If we had not collaborated in this way, none of us would have gotten anywhere. Joining forces is what made us successful.
Business: MadPipe, a digital marketing strategist in Brooklyn, New York
Alliance: MadPipe and Think Work Media cross-refer to each other’s clients and co-created a marketing course aimed at educating potential customers and establishing thought leadership for their industry.
Results: Co-created a course for potential clients and identified opportunities for cross-referrals.
Think Work Media head Shayne Spencer and I met in a networking group, and quickly realized that we both wanted to raise the bar for our industry. In the digital marketing business, there are a lot of vendors who call themselves “strategists,” which often means they have control of an organization’s marketing budget and allocate those resources to buy services offered by their own agencies. When that happens, everyone in the industry is considered a competitor. What also often happens is vendors use a lot of jargon to convince businesses to spend lots of money without delivering a lot of value. That is not good for any of us.
The fundamental philosophy of what Shayne and I do is very different. Think Work Media is a marketing agency. That means they do everything, including strategy, web design, social media, email and online advertising marketing. I am only a strategist. Companies pay me for my brain only. I do not sell any additional services, and I sometimes advise clients to in-source marketing functions or to outsource. My advice is objective, much like a fee-only financial adviser who does not sell any investment products.
But Shayne and I realized we share similar values, and both of us want to position ourselves as thought leaders and work together to educate businesses on how to get the most value out of marketing vendors.
We joined forces and offered an eight-week marketing course for business owners. Priced at $650 and limited to 12 entrepreneurs, we capitalized on each other’s strengths; I led the sections on social media strategy, while Shayne focused on web design and analytics. We hoped to get clients out of the course, but it was not a hard sales pitch. The benefit was that we really were educating the client base to make enlightened purchasing decisions in our industry, which only stands to raise the bar for everyone.
Creating the coursework was invaluable. It forced us to hone our ideas and messaging, and clarify who our real competitors are. Putting down our egos made us realize ways we can collaborate. Shayne brings me in as a strategist on his projects when I would add the most value, and when it makes sense for one of my clients to outsource, I refer them to Think Work Media.
Senior Vice President, Chief Strategy and Integration Officer
Business: VSP, vision care insurance
Alliance: VSP extended its insurance coverage to Pearle Optical.
Results: More people have better access to vision care, improving business for both partners.
VSP and Luxottica, the parent company of Pearle, compete across the supply chain—both companies have vision insurance and eyeglass manufacturing. But we view competition differently than even a few years ago. Today our competitor is the marketplace—an increasingly younger customer who wants easier access to vision care options, and the Internet, which provides lots of low-cost eyewear options.
Ultimately both companies share the same mission, which is to help more people to see better. Traditionally, VSP has partnered with local independent doctors. But we found that millennials demand easier access to eye care services and more choices. Employers demanded more eye care options for their employees. We needed to modernize how we did business to meet those demands.
We realized we could grow each other’s share of the business by entering into a partnership. So we extended our insurance coverage to Pearle Vision EyeCare Centers.
Pearle was the obvious partner. It has an established online retail model, and each location is an independently owned franchise. This keeps within VSP’s tradition of representing 30,000 independent eye care professionals, and it promises to drive more customers to Pearle.
The partnership rollout began in November of 2014, and both partners have seen success. Pearle has tracked a number of new patients who had not received vision care before. In one case, a VSP customer was sent immediately to the emergency room when the Pearle Vision eye doctor identified a detached retina. This one instance alone validates the partnership, since it made vision care accessible to more people.
This article was published in April 2015 and has been updated. Photo by @DashaPetrenko/Twenty20
Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.