Historically, we’ve been conditioned to think of our competitors as enemies; that they exist purely to try and steal our share of the market, and that the only way to respond is to try to steal theirs.

“I went to so many meetings where we had to define other companies as the enemy. ‘We’re doing 92 percent of the market in terms of PR impressions!’ ‘They don’t even have a social plan!’ ‘We’re gonna crush them!’” Ted Bauer, writing about his experience working for a travel consortium company

Many big corporations are testament to this attitude.

Walmart and Target frequently step on each other’s toes trying to corner the same niche markets.

Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s have attacked each other’s brands numerous times. In fact, in 1997 Pizza Hut and Papa John’s took so many shots at each other that the feud eventually had to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And of course, the giants of the soft drink industry and lifelong rivals: Pepsi and Coca Cola.

Image Credit

But times are changing. The way we work is changing. How we think about expanding a business is changing.

“You could argue Apple will be a healthcare company by 2020. Google might be a car company. Rolls Royce makes most of its money now from jet engines.” Ted Bauer (again), writing about how the landscape of business is changing

It’s inevitable that some brands will stay tied to the idea that the competition is the enemy, but many of us are thinking and acting differently toward our competition. At the end of the day, execution is the key differentiator.

I make a point of not thinking of my competition as something I should be trying to destroy. Sure, technically we’re going after the same customers, but this doesn’t mean I need to resort to cheap tactics like bad-mouthing them.

Instead, I do the exact opposite.

I host a podcast with one and share offices with another. I’m friends with most of them and if I’m not, it’s because we’re not friends yet – not because we’re enemies.

So, Why Should You be Friends with Your Competitors?

These aren’t the only reasons to stop thinking of your competitors like foes and start treating them like friends; but they are, in my experience, the main ones.

People outlast companies

The average American lives 78.8 years. The average company lasts 10 years.

This means it’s very shortsighted to only think about your current business in the here and now. You might need your competitors to employ you in the future; you might become business partners; you might buy them out.

It’s really, really important not to make enemies of people you have professional connections with (or anyone, really, but that’s a discussion for another time). You just never know what impact those people might have on your life later down the line.

It makes you trustworthy

Being open and friendly with your competitors shows you have nothing to hide, and demonstrates integrity.

Conversely, companies that dig into their competitors raise questions. If you’re as good at what you do as you say you are, why talk down anyone else? Why not let your work or your product speak for itself?

Think of it like this.

You have conversations with two acquaintances. One of them is complimentary about other people in their life. The other moans about them, spills their secrets, or makes statements that allude to how much “better” they are than these people.

Who will you trust more and, given the choice, prefer to spend time with?

It goes without saying that we would choose the people who appear likeable and trustworthy, so it makes sense that in business, we’d feel the same way. Whether it’s teaming up with another company or deciding whose product you’re going to use, it’s the people who are open and friendly with everyone that will come across as the most honest and principled, and consequently, are the most likely to win business.

It puts the customer first

There is no true one-size-fits-all in life. Consequently, your product or solution is not going to be right for every customer. It bodes well for you if you can recognize when this is the case, and refer them to a competitor with a better solution for their needs. This demonstrates that your first and biggest concern is what’s best for your customers (and potential customers) – another great quality for any brand that pushes the point above: it makes you trustworthy.

For example, when I’m on stage speaking at an event I’ll recommend cold email tools like Woodpecker and Yesware as well as Mailshake (my own). That’s because I know Mailshake isn’t right for everyone, and actually, I don’t care about the tool you use, as long as you’re successful.

Pushing your product onto a customer when it’s not a fit for them doesn’t do anyone any favors. They’re not getting what they need, they’re unlikely to remain a customer of yours for long, and in the meantime, your competitor loses business.

Even if that customer sticks with you for the foreseeable future, if your product isn’t a fit for them, what do you think’s going to happen?

It’s educational

The more you talk to your competitors the more you’ll realize something… you can learn a lot from them (and vice versa).

Just recently, I sat next to Yesware’s CEO and we shared challenges we’re both facing and brainstormed a few ideas on how to solve each other’s problems.

Because I’m friends with the CEO of Growbots, I learned that advertising is a poor channel for both of us because the cost per acquisition is way too high.

But that’s not all. There’s even a chance that opportunities to collaborate might arise.

Take Toyota and BMW, which have now partnered up not once, but twice. It might seem counterintuitive to join forces and actually work with a rival, but think what you might be able to achieve with double the talent, at half the cost.

It’s a friendly challenge

Just because you’re friends with your competitors doesn’t mean you can’t compete… it’s just a different sort of competition. You’re not trying to take their business or turn potential customers off them. Instead, by “competing,” you’re driving each other to be the best that you can be.

I’m doing this right now with Growbots, Woodpecker and LeadFuze. I’m in a secret competition with them, but I don’t actually care to beat them… in fact, I’m doing the exact opposite and rooting them on.

This, as I see it, is the healthy way to approach your competition: not by talking each other down, but by driving each other to be better.

So How Do You Become Friends with Your Competitors?

It’s all well and good knowing you need to start treating your competition differently, but how do you actually take the leap to becoming friends with them?

Stop thinking of them like enemies

Before you can take the first step toward becoming friends with your enemies, you have to change your mindset.

If, when you find out about a project they’ve completed, you automatically jump to criticizing it and thinking “I could have done this better,” start looking at the positives and what you can learn from it, instead of focusing on its failures.

If they’ve produced something genuinely bad, think about why. Perhaps they gave too much responsibility to a new intern, had to work on an extremely tight deadline, or deal with the impossible demands of a difficult client.

Look for the positives in what your competitors do, instead of taking pleasure in their shortcomings.

Make the first move

Don’t wait for your competitors to make the first move toward building a relationship. Be the bigger person (or brand) and reach out to them.

You’re probably going to want to do this by social media or email, initially. Phone calls and in person meetings can come later.

A good way to break the ice is with honest, to-the-point flattery. What do you like about what they do? What have you learned from their methods?

From there, reach out to them and suggest ways to collaborate. Social media will be invaluable here – use it to discover what they’re working on and inspire ways you might work together.

Attend industry events

Check for industry meetups and try to get to conferences whenever you can. Just be sure to plan ahead first – after all, it helps if your competitors will actually be at the event you want to attend. To do this you can:

  • Check speaker line-ups
  • Look at who’s RSVP’d to Meetups
  • Check competitors’ social profiles for mentions of events they’re attending
  • If you’re already friends – ask them

It’s also a good idea to get in touch with anyone you’re hoping to speak to ahead of the event, and let them know you’d like to meet up, or arrange a specific time and place to talk (it’s probably best to reserve that second one for people you’re already in contact with).

And if you have lots of competitors nearby but no relevant Meetups (or similar) in your area? Start one.

Make the second move

Once your competitors have become “acquaintances,” try to cement that relationship by inviting them out for dinner or drinks (or anything else you might share a common interest in).

I make a point of doing this pretty regularly, especially when I’m traveling (since that’s when I get the chance to meet with people I usually wouldn’t be able to speak to in person).

Exactly what I do depends on who I’m meeting, but a favorite strategy of mine involves hosting dinners, to which I invite a few people I want to get to know better. This gives me the chance to get to know lots of people in one night (plus it’s usually great fun).


What do you think about being friends with your competitors? Do you think it’s a good idea or do you like to keep things strictly business (and traditionally competitive)? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below:

  1. Very good article. For a living I work als a lawyer in Austria and what you describe in your article is exactly what I’m struggeling with in my surroundings. And I always felt a bit alone with “my way of thinking”. So thanks for mental support 🙂

  2. Wow this is an excellent article. I find that I always want to make friends with the competition and learn from them, but what do you do if your company/boss are against it? Do you still go for it?

    1. Ben,

      Thanks! Convincing the boss can be a tough one. I’m more an “ask for forgiveness” type person 🙂

Comments are closed.