How to become friends with your competitors

Building relationships with companies operating in the same sector could provide valuable support and knowledge-sharing opportunities. Ian Cowley explains how.

Becoming friends with your competitors sounds like a contradiction in terms. Why on earth would you want to sleep with the enemy?

In our experience however, building relationships with companies operating in the same sector can reap benefits. Here are our tips for making these relationships work for you.

Understanding the cons – and pros

We wanted to start by demystifying the illusion of competition. The reality is, you don’t have that many business competitors. Although you might operate in the same market, it’s rare that you will play in exactly the same space, targeting the exact same demographics with the exact products.

We know a concern shared by many is that you’d inadvertently disclose a secret that will unlock the key to your success over one too many drinks. But it’s not that easy to copy a business. Even when people try to, they often end up copying the wrong thing.

Instead by developing a relationship with businesses similar to you, you create a network of contacts you can phone any time you need to talk through industry issues affecting you both. It can be really motivating chatting to someone affected by the same problems as you and we’ve found it mutually beneficial. You don’t have to trade secrets while you’re on the phone!

How to get in touch

LinkedIn and Twitter are great ways to start the ball rolling. You can’t guarantee that your message will get a good reception but they provide the perfect way to test the water – and allow the recipient an opportunity to politely decline if this type of networking is not for them.

Just be clear on what you’re trying to achieve. We had this awful situation a few years ago where we set an introductory meeting which we hoped would establish a useful contact for the future. Unfortunately he misunderstood and thought we wanted to buy his business. The disappointment was palpable. Be clear on why you want to meet, so expectations are set.

Where to meet

Exhibitions provide a great place to meet. These events enable you to make informal introductions over a coffee without putting any pressure on the meeting. You don’t even have to make a special trip.

Helpfully organisers release a delegate list in advance so you have a good idea of who will be attending and can drop potential contacts a line with a quick ‘still going? Be good to meet up’.

Creating a community of business owners

Don’t limit your network of contacts to businesses working in the same sector. No doubt you’ll meet a number of business owners along the way who you respect and get on well with. Keep in contact and enjoy their company over regular meet-ups as you never know when they might become valuable.

Your meetings with them don’t need to be serious. In fact on most occasions you’ll be just sharing the gossip over a beer. But like-minded entrepreneurs will be invaluable for discussing issues affecting you all, for lead generation, for knowledge sharing and even mentorship. For example at The Sunday Times Fast Track event we met a managing director with a massive call centre. His advice has really influenced our customer service provision.

In our experience, most people are quite obliging when called on for advice. Just make sure you have a relationship with them first.

Further reading on liaising with competitors

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