The business world is filled with competitors—big and small—who are ambitious about dominating the marketplace, squeezing every dollar out of it, and driving you out of business by rendering you useless to the customers that you serve or wish to serve.
Not only as an entrepreneur are you taught you must avoid this at all costs, you also are told you have to devise a warlike strategy to destroy the competition.
Not so fast, says Mary Ellen Slayter, CEO of Reputation Capital, a content marketing firm. “Instead, I’ve taken a more pragmatic, cooperative approach toward our competition, one that has helped support our vision for long-term growth,” she says.
Make High-Value Referrals. Knowing your own value proposition makes this easy. You’re not going to be the best at everything, and you shouldn’t try. Find people whose approaches are different from yours, even if their offerings seem at first the same. You’re not going to be the best solution for everyone. Make these sort of connections confidently. Know that such behavior will come as a surprise to a lot of people, but it in a good way. It shows integrity.
Call for Backup When You Need It. Having warm relationships with competitors also means you can get back up when you need it. “At one point last year I found myself in a jam. A deadline for ordering trade show collateral was coming up fast and my design team was fully booked,” Slayter recalls. A willingness to work together also allows you to team up to pursue larger projects than you could have gone after on your own. Learn your competitors’ weaknesses and offer your company’s strengths so that you can tackle larger projects together. This ultimately helps increase the bottom line of both companies. Both parties gain leverage this way and it opens doors for more opportunities in the future.
Work to Elevate the Whole Industry. Real thought leaders don’t spend their time cutting down other people in their industry — they work to build everyone up, Slayter says. This mindset helps the industry become stronger and more diverse, which also benefits your own firm in the long run. “For me, that means being generous with praise for competitors, in public as well as in private. I even freely share my competitors’ content on my social channels,” Slayter adds.
If you’re used to a more dog-eat-dog mindset, this approach may feel uncomfortable at first. “But I’ve seen it work at our company, as well as for leaders of other, larger organizations. Nice guys really do finish first, even in business.”
A version of this story originally appeared on the BusinessCollective, launched in partnership with Citi, which is a virtual mentorship program powered by North America’s most ambitious young thought leaders, entrepreneurs, executives and small business owners.