Don’t think of your competition as your enemy

Competition. It’s everywhere in our lives from an early age. From youth sports to reality TV to who gets to sit where in the school lunchroom, we’re socialized to the idea that competition is an unavoidable and ever present fact of life. 

As we get older and enter the workforce, the focus on competing really kicks into high gear. Almost every aspect of business is framed as a form of competition. Business schools are ranked against each other. Blogs routinely put out “top X” lists. Business magazines report on the rise and fall of companies (where real people’s livelihoods are at stake!) like they’re reporting on the latest football scores. 

And let’s be honest about this: competition is a part of our lives. It’s one of the driving forces behind evolution, which made us who we are. But in the business world, things have too often tipped from competition to a zero-sum war for existence. And it ignores an even more powerful force of nature: cooperation

By Any Means Necessary

A report from Harvard Business Review found a prevalence among many big brands of a “masculinity contest culture.” This culture promotes a winner-take-all mindset, where the winners win by embodying stereotypically masculine traits, including emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness. It also creates dysfunction within organizations, as employees and management become hyper-focused and competitive to win by any means.

Uber is a prime example. A New York Times investigation cited in the HBR research described Uber as a “Hobbesian environment … in which workers are pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.” 

But it’s not just hypergrowth startups run by young billionaires that have become hell-bent on destroying the competition. Another example comes from one of most recognizable consumer brands in history: Coca-Cola and the bonkers story of Tab Clear.

In the early 90s, Coca-Cola faced stiff competition from its chief rival, Pepsi, which had just released a new soda called Crystal Pepsi. It was essentially the same as regular Pepsi, just without the food coloring. So what did Coca-Cola do? Not go back to their R&D team, tweak their recipe, push the industry forward, and compete on the merits as you might expect. No, they declared war. They released Tab Clear, essentially a kamikaze product that they knew wasn’t very good, but was designed solely to destroy Crystal Pepsi. You see, they knew grocery stores would put Tab Clear right next to Crystal Pepsi, which would link the two sodas in the minds of consumers. After a few short months on the market, both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were dead. Coca-Cola had successfully manipulated the market by intentionally releasing a bad product. They went to war, and they won.

But is that really the best way to think of our competition? 

It’s Time to Reframe Our Approach to Competition

Even if we don’t go to extremes like Coca-Cola and actively harm the market, our approach to competition degrades our customers and the entire ecosystem. In tech, it’s so easy (and lazy) to look at the competing solutions and the companies behind them as a blocker to your success, especially if you are in sales, success, or any form of leadership role. Slowly, our language begins to change, and industry peers shift from being “alternatives” to being “enemies.”

Let’s reframe this. These other companies are not your enemy; they’re not really even your competitors. They are ecosystem peers. 

Treat your competitors as though all your actions and words will be shared with your customers. Imagine a direct link between your regard for other companies and how prospects and customers come to see you. Peter Thiel famously said, “competition is for losers.” He wasn’t satisfied with thinking of competitors as enemies; his vision was totalizing and acting to erase the very existence of ecosystem peers. “Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival,” he wrote in his book Zero to One, “monopoly profits.”

If your vision for the industry is one that doesn’t make space for competitors, for alternative solutions, for choice, for diversity and more options… you may have already lost part of your humanity. 

If you think and behave in this way, you are logically extending the belief system to people that chose an alternative to you or your company. You have now extended your personal fears and anger towards people who would otherwise be your customer, and they will see and feel this. 

If you manifest any binary, zero-sum, winner-take-all, toxic attitude towards another company or their solution, you lower the value of the entire industry. Your flames will torch your own brand and erode its value and goodwill. You will move deeper into fear and fear-based thinking and actions, and this will lead to your own dehumanization. After you decide one party is an enemy, it will be hard to not see others through the same reactionary lens.

Thiel’s vision of business as an evolutionary struggle for survival where only one solution can win and must dominate all others is not only dystopian and bleak, it’s also a wrong view of evolution. Scientists are beginning to understand that cooperation is a much more powerful force in nature. “The role of unbridled violence in evolution is greatly overestimated,” Danny Grunbaum, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, told UC Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine. “Cooperation in general is a very good strategy in science. It’s exceedingly rare for someone to take advantage of you if you chose to share your work in an unguarded way.”

Competition makes us better, and cooperation makes us stronger. There’s so much we can learn from our industry peers if we don’t approach them as enemies to be ground to dust. People bring a variety of perspectives to how they solve a problem, and that diversity is essential for driving entire industries toward the best possible outcomes. Ultimately, that is good for all of us. Having an associate degree in business helps you with business growth but having fierce competitors paves the way for success.

We still have much to learn about how to embrace diversity and choice, even when it can be an alternative to our own solution and brand. But it’s the path we’re taking.

Our Competitors, Our Peers

Choosing an outsourcing company? There are plenty you could work with. But for new economy businesses, startups, and mission driven companies, there are a handful that stand out. We are fortunate to count among our industry peers a number of companies that we feel proud to recommend.

FlightCX, co-founded by Pamella Carrasquel and Nykki Yeager, is a wonderful customer experience outsourcing company that specializes in helping people-first companies. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Nykki for almost 10 years, and she is one of the most experienced CX leaders I know. They place a special emphasis on recruiting and training great individuals for each team, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend FlightCX to anyone looking for a great outsourcing partner. 

Boldr, led by David Sudolsky and Mari Parker, is a mission driven outsourcing company focused on making an impact. I’ve known David for about 6 years now, and he is passionate about “outsourcing for good.” Their company provides a range of solutions, and you will get a 100% authentic experience when engaging them. Mari is a deeply experienced operator, with a steady hand at the helm, and the two of them are surrounded by a great team. 

The duo of Alyssa Bernstein and Nathan Tone, from Wrrk, promise to deliver a “world class customer service team at a click,” and they have built an impressive business around this idea. With a heavy emphasis on homegrown technology, they are definitely worth checking out.  

While I don’t have a ton of direct experience, I’ve heard good things about Influx and Peak Support, and believe they are very much aligned with the “doing better, being better” ethos. I’m sure there are many other companies that are worth mentioning, but this is a great list to get started.  

PartnerHero will continue to do our part in helping reshape outsourcing, pushing our industry from extractive and dystopian, to sustainable and equitable. And we are excited to see other companies doing their part to bring about this transformation. It’s a very large market, with millions of people being impacted, and there’s no reason to approach it as a zero sum game. 

Moving an entire industry will take all of us—working as peers, not enemies.

Shervin Talieh

Co-founder and CEO

Shervin Talieh