Growth Strategy

Here Are Your Toughest Business Competitors

Here Are Your Toughest Business Competitors
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Who are your competitors? If you’re a restaurant owner, you might say the restaurant in the next block or the next town. If you’re a Ford dealer, you might point to a GM showroom. If you deliver heating oil, you might name a propane vendor or a public gas utility.

And you’d be right -- to a point. You’ve named your traditional competitors, the ones you’ve been facing for years. But what about the competitors that are getting ready to turn your company on its ear by doing business in an entirely new way? Can you identify them and what it is about the way they operate that could be a challenge for your company?

Not long ago, restaurants and supermarkets would have been viewed as operating in completely different worlds. Then supermarkets began offering prepared meals that were ready to be taken home for dinner, creating competition for restaurant takeout food. Some food markets went a step further, setting up tables where the meals could be consumed without ever leaving the store. They’ve become the equivalent of a quick-service restaurant.

Related: Richard Branson on Handling the Competition

Tesla and online marketplaces like TrueCar are competitors that few traditional auto dealerships could have imagined a decade ago. TrueCar aggregates prices from many dealerships in a Kayak-like platform to show buyers what they might expect to pay for the model they are contemplating. The dealers commit to honoring that price, haggle-free. Tesla, meanwhile, has been trying to forego dealerships altogether and sell directly to consumers. Auto dealers in several states don’t like the idea of that kind of competition and have been fighting to force the electric luxury car maker to use dealerships. All that seems to be driving Tesla to move sales online, which could create competition that the dealers haven’t even begun to contemplate.

Jeff Bezos wasn’t in the book business before he started Amazon. Now, he pretty much is the book business.

My industry, finance, seems to sprout a new group of competitors every week, and most of them are far from the traditional ones. Lending has moved away from the stately bank on your street corner to the Internet and now involves lenders who aren’t even bankers -- at least not in the traditional sense. These new financial services competitors include ordinary individuals lending to other ordinary individuals and businesses. Sometimes they're getting a financial return on their funding, but often not.

Related: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em: Why Two Competitors Joined Forces in the Fight to Beat Cancer

Alternative funding is still a small competitor to the Goliath of traditional banking. But some banks have spotted the slingshot and are beginning to make alternative finance its ally: In 2014, Union Bank in San Francisco agreed to sell some of its personal loans through Lending Club, while Spain’s Santander bank began referring potential small business borrowers to an online peer-to-peer lender. Two British legislators added to the competitive furor with a bill that would require traditional banks to refer small-business borrowers that they reject to an online alternative funder. Competition, particularly competition from unexpected sources, can bring out the legislators and regulators. The leading companies in alternative funding have welcomed discussions from both that are aimed at a sensible framework that preserves competition.

So stop for a moment to think about who your real competitors are, right now, offline and online. (If you think you don’t have any online competitors, do a Google search. Chances are, they exist, and if they’re not in your area now, they will be soon.) Think about someone who isn’t in your industry yet but who could potentially do what you do. Think about someone who could develop the technology to render your business obsolete. Think about the movers and shakers who usher in changes, economically or politically, that could do away with the work that you do. 

Those, ladies and gentlemen, are your next competitors.

Related: Competition Is for Sissies