Stop Playing So Nice With Your Competition

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Former Editorial Director at Entrepreneur Media
5 min read

There is vice in playing nice.

Car service Uber is taking some heat for a program that disrupts services offered by its main rival, Lyft. Among Uber's perceived sins is stealing Lyft drivers and meddling with Lyft's ability to service its customers by ordering rides itself.

Uber, we are told, is fighting nasty. It is hitting below the belt. It is trying to put Lyft out of business. Horrors, it may even be winning.

Good. Every company should compete hard. That doesn't mean playing dirty or breaking the law, but nowhere is it written that you always have to play fair.

At some point, competition became a nasty word in this country. I've judged some startup competitions recently, and met with a few entrepreneurs privately, and when I ask about their competitive environment, I get dreadfully milquetoast replies: "We look at our competitors as potential partners." "We have no competition, since our product is so unique." "I'm going to let our competitors worry about themselves and focus on my customers and building my own business."


Competition is important. A competitive zeal, a desire to want to see your rivals fail as much as you want to succeed, is a key trait of leadership. Once -- just once -- I want to hear someone say, "X is our primary competitor and I want to put those bastards out of business within the next 12 months."

Related: When Company Culture Becomes Discrimination

Instead, there is this disappointing, clubbish comradery that exists in the business world, particularly among startups. People want to be liked. After all, they all hang in the same circles. They collaborate. They work together. They live in the same neighborhoods. They listen to the same bands. In this neo-Bushwood world, competition, and the resultant conflict that comes from it, can land you in Judge Smails' office for a stern lecture about the benefits of collegiality.

But history shows people don't win by playing nice. Steve Jobs didn't build consensus internally, let alone collaborate with companies in his space. Jeff Bezos didn't waste his time thinking of ways Borders could reinvent itself. Indra Nooyi doesn't wake up every day and ask how she can help her friends at Coca-Cola.

Rather than plastering your walls with life-affirming messages of inspiration that make you the nicest guy in the room, there is a Latin phrase to memorize (with me, there always is): Oderint dum metuant. Attributed to the Roman poet Lucius Appius, it translates roughly into, "Let them hate me, so long as they fear me." You want competitors to fear you. You want them to hate you. It shouldn't matter. You want them to shut their doors and board up their windows. 

A rallying cry for more cutthroat competition seems like something people who make a business of doing business should never need to hear, but we do. Think about it: We live in a society that celebrates trying to succeed as much as it does the actual success. We can't applaud at sporting events because it might make the losing team feel bad about themselves. We want equal outcomes rather than equal opportunities. Every kid has to get a trophy.

Related: Why Americans Don't Want to Start New Businesses

But that's not the way it works in a truly free market. There should be winners and there should be losers. Losing isn't a stigma. The best part of defeat is that we can learn from it. When we are competitive, when we destroy our rivals, we actually can make both sides stronger. Smart businesspeople learn from failure. Love your competitor that much? Then think of shuttering their business as an act of love and learning, if that helps you sleep at night.

And, make no mistake, the competition doesn't end after victory, since winning can be fleeting. Even once you have vanquished one competitor, another is bound to start up. Winners can never rest on their laurels. Competition, and the fighting spirit that drives it, is a daily responsibility for the business leader.

For G-d's sake, just fight. Be innovative in how you approach your competitor as much as you are in how you serve your customer. Think of it, in fact, as a form of creative customer service. Your competitor's product is crap, so you almost have a responsibility to keep your customer away from it by driving your competition out of business. It's a win-win (or, if we take your rival's position into our equation, a win-win-lose).

I recognize that doing good is also good business, and monopolies are bad for everyone. You should never break the law, or act unethically. That's bad business, since it can lead to customer distrust (putting aside that it is just plain wrong). But it isn't a healthy business approach to sit back and cheer on your competitors either. Nor is it good to "tsk tsk" a company like Uber that makes it a full-time job to disrupt its competitor's business. Rather, you should be taking notes.

You can have a good day at work, but it becomes a great day when your competitor is having a bad day. There is much virtue in that attitude.

Related: The Myth of the Have-Nots


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