“We have no permanent friends.
We have no permanent enemies.
We just have permanent interests.”
I have always had a slightly contrarian view on relationships with competitors in the business environment.
I always met with them.
I always encouraged my people to meet, and interact, with them.
I always debated and discussed with them.
I have always had some friends at competitors … and certainly had some enemies at competitors.
And I have always been quite willing to put them out of business if, competitively, I felt like my business was better than theirs.
I just said that. In fact. I said two things.
Put them out of business. This doesn’t mean doing anything evil nor does it mean going behind anyone’s back in some slimy undercutting way. This is about confidently putting yourself alongside the enemy and beating the living daylights out of them. And doing so over and over again until you suffocate their business or they just quit.
Please note ‘my business was better than theirs.’
Sometimes you are actually not the best and sometimes you are actually not different in any real significant way.
Sometimes you are just a different alternative.
Sometimes you don’t compete exactly directly.
And sometimes your enemy actually is a better fit for someone then you are.
If you are better, then beat them.
Beyond beating the crap out of some competitor … 90% of the time I find the ‘enemy’ quite the delight to rub elbows with.
This doesn’t mean I was flippant with regard to confidential information it is just that I believe ‘unique’ or ‘proprietary’ are more often than not … well … not. I also believe that my ‘enemy’ was simply a business competitor who had the same interests that I did <selling more shit at the highest price possible>.
But I have never understood some absurd ‘never talk with the competitor.” And I think it is absurd for a variety of reasons but let’s go through why business relationships are always tricky But no reason to not interact openly with a competitor>.
Your best employee may become the best employee at your competitor at some point.
Your favorite boss may leave and start a new company … competing against a portion of your offering.
You may leave, leaving behind a boatload of people you like & respect, to take a promotion at some competitor and … well … compete against those same people you like & respect who happen to be at a company you still like & respect.
And the trickiest?
Sometimes you actually decide to partner with a sometimes enemy because of mutual interest <and money of course>.
What business teaches you … well … what it should teach you is that there are no permanent allies, no permanent friends, no permanent enemies and, really, only permanent interests.
This shouldn’t be construed in any way as morally hollow or ethically challenged.
It is a simple business truth that it is in the interest of a person and business to maximize behavior in a given situation. That means you give your best, you offer your best and be your best regardless of who is in the room or whomever you may be competing with.
I imagine the net translation on that thought is that through individual behavior the interests of a business are being best served and ultimately it is the interest of the business itself that is the only thing that truly remains constant.
Friends and enemies may keep changing depending on what suits the business interest best.
There are potential costs … as well as potential benefits to rubbing elbows and being friendly, or at least conversationally cordial, to your competitors.
But that should not mean ignoring competition nor should it mean not maintaining some dialogue with them.
Some people will not agree with this.
What I have on my side is diplomatic history. The concept of ‘continuous dialogue’ originated in the 17th century with the French and Cardinal Richelieu.
It is a “belief in the utility of diplomatic representation and communication even between states that have reached a hostile relationship short of war.”
And you do so not to be friends, nor to seek to be allies, but to maintain the respect of two entities with different interests, but a similar interest to succeed, as a way to reduce the chances of war.
But let me point to what I believe is the truest of benefits.
As long as your business is well defined, as long as your business has a strong culture, as long as your business fosters the attitude of ‘being the best’ without arrogance … I would suggest that nothing strengthens your people than interacting with the people of friends, enemies and those with different interests. Your people, through interaction with others who may be seeking things on their own self best interest, are the surest arbiters of what is right, wrong, true, false, lawful or ethically hollow.
And while I do not think this is solely an American trait it was Alexis de Tocqueville who said this about Americans in 1831:
[T]hey hold that public opinion is the surest arbiter of what is lawful or forbidden, true or false. … They hold that every man is born in possession of the right of self-government, and that no one has the right of constraining his fellow-creatures to be happy. They have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man; they are of opinion that the effects of the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, and the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent.
It is the people who are the surest arbiter of true & false … therefore if you ever want someone to truly believe in your business that you must mentally believe “the consequences of ignorance fatal.”
And embrace that an industry, which is often a society within itself, is a body in a state of improvement.
Keeping yourself, or your employees, cocooned within just who and what you are endangers the livelihood of the business itself in that you miss the opportunity for potential change and run the danger of ‘permanent’ <or stagnant>.
I personally find nothing wrong with positioning yourself as close to your competitors as you possibly can. The benefits outweigh the possible negatives.
On a separate note.
I tend to believe this idea works just as well in non-business life.
I have friends & acquaintances who clearly have different political points of view, different views on religion as well as significantly different views on a spectrum of different things. I watch news programs and listen to news programs which clearly do not appeal to my sense of what is true or right.
It doesn’t harden my point of view but it certainly makes me more self-aware with regard to how others think and why they do the things they do.
And it certainly reminds me that no matter how much I may disagree with someone the majority of the time they have the same interests that I do – a better country and a better way of doing things.
I don’t think this makes me any better than others but it may make me a little more enlightened and aware.
And I have to believe that isn’t a bad thing.