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Enemy Mine

Learning to live with the competitors you love to hate

Thinking about the war with Iraq got Michael D. Alter, senior vice president and founding member of SurePayroll in Skokie, Illinois, pondering the business lessons of conflict:

Do we need enemies in business? My company, SurePayroll, competes with ADP and Paychex, the No. 1 and No. 2 payroll companies in the country. SurePayroll is No. 6, having gotten there by driving in ADP and Paychex's blind spot: We cater exclusively to small businesses. ADP and Paychex probably don't think about SurePayroll too often, but I think about them all the time. Having an enemy motivates me. Our screen saver shows David (SurePayroll) using a slingshot to knock out two Goliaths (ADP and Paychex).

Now, here's the thing. I've got kids, and like most parents, my wife and I try to teach them to be good to others. Yet, at the office, I'm fighting. Fighting ADP and Paychex. Fighting to win customers. I read the business headlines, and everybody's fighting: Coke vs. Pepsi; McDonald's vs. Burger King; Apple vs. IBM.

But the war in Iraq got me thinking. Remember how our government demonized the Russians during the Cold War? Then it turned out they were just good people like us. As I think about this, I realize I don't want to put ADP or Paychex out of business. Their employees are good people, just like us. Rather than eliminating each other, we can work together. After all, according to the SBA, small businesses account for more than 99.7 percent of employers. That means plenty of prospective clients.

We estimate outsourcing payroll saves a small business $4,200 a year. I think about ADP, Paychex and SurePayroll working together to provide that savings to small businesses, and it makes me feel good. The pie is plenty big for all of us.

Now, instead of battling ADP and Paychex, we're refocusing our energies on making life better for small businesses. We're uninstalling the David and Goliath screen saver. The mandate for a new one? Keep it motivating, focus on the customer and make it peaceful.

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This article was originally published in the October 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Enemy Mine.

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