Why Do We Think Competition Is The Only Way To Do Things?


Friday, 8.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. – Albert Camus

How do you react when you first see something new – a new service or a product or an idea?

Do you react with cynicism, with scepticism – perhaps a view that it will never work.

Or do you eagerly try new things, knowing that if you don’t you won’t find those gems hiding among the stones?

Fear, uncertainty and doubt are our friends – they help keep us alive.

Our brains are wired to distrust the new, the unfamiliar until we’re sure it’s not going to eat or sting or poison us.

But we’re also social creatures, evolved to live together while constantly engaging in fractious tussles for turf and power.

And we’re not very different from our ancestors in that respect – monkeys have a strong sense of social hierarchy and status – and it governs much of what they do every day.

Now, what does that tell us about the way we work together – or more importantly, the way we should work together.

Let’s take any business, for example – probably one that’s based on an individual skill.

The other day I read a LinkedIn post where a provider of a particular service was called by a prospective customer asking for prices.

Later, when the provider researched the prospect it turned out that the prospect was actually a competitor – who then advertised the same service at a slightly lower cost.

You might argue that what the competitor was doing was smart market research, or you might feel that it was unprofessional behaviour.

Regardless, what it tells you is that the competitor saw the service they were providing as a commodity, something that was interchangeable with what someone else did.

And that leads to a problem.

If you’re selling something that is no different from what a number of other people are selling then the only difference is price.

In such markets the lowest cost operator will win.

You might be able to maintain margins for some of the time – but eventually many markets end up being dominated by a large commodity trade and a small luxury trade.

Take glasses, for example – the things that you wear.

You can pay a lot of money in a shop, even more if you’re buying a brand or treat it as an item of jewellery.

But you can also buy it for not very much through online services.

But the thing about being a commodity is that it’s as much about the way you see yourself as what’s actually happening out there.

If you see yourself competing in a crowded, jostling market, selling things that anyone else could sell then you’re not going to have much fun running your business.

It will feel crowded and you’ll always be limited in what you can charge and how much you can grow.

At the other extreme you may have something unique but if it’s too different, too out of the ordinary, then you won’t have customers willing to take a chance on you.

That’s a lonely place – the kind where inventors who fall in love with their products go – when they stop listening to their markets.

A workable business, on the other hand, probably has principles of community at its core.

If you provide a service then you probably want to be in the company of other professionals who care about their subject enough to be expert at it.

More importantly, they need to have spent enough time on their craft to develop their own unique approach – one that doesn’t compete with your approach but that makes the whole field richer.

Take any industry, for example, say graphic design.

Graphic design is a field where a designer could have free rein to create amazing designs that delight customers.

Or they could turn out the same basic patterns again and again for different customers.

Or they could create pure art that no one really understands and therefore no one buys.

In that field you have people who experience business in all three ways: too crowded, too lonely and just right.

But it’s the same field.

What’s different is the approach and attitude they bring to their business.

All too often people blame the market for their lack of success.

Perhaps we should be asking ourselves what we bring to the market – what’s unique, rare, different about what we do?

Because the market, at its core, is the aggregation of lots of little decisions made by buyers and sellers.

Individual decisions.

Like the ones you make about whether to be a commodity or to be much much more.

To be part of a community.


Karthik Suresh

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