Are you an entrepreneur who’s been facing a bit of stiff competition? If so, you’re in good company. The Virgin Founder has faced his fair share over the years...
"If you want to be successful in business, you need to welcome your competition with open arms - just don’t let them walk all over you. Strike the right balance between respecting your rivals and focusing on how you can beat them, and you’ll have a winning formula," explained Richard Branson in a recent entrepreneur.com blog.
However the dilemma that many entrepreneurs face is over how much time to spend focusing on your competitors. Some sports coaches will meticulously study the opposition, making sure they are aware of every move the have – and potentially could – make. While some prefer to concentrate on what their own team is doing, allowing the competition to take care of itself. So, where does the Virgin Founder stand on the issue?
"It’s not unusual for an entrepreneur to become overly preoccupied with what his competitors are up to. Starting a business is a lot of work, and it’s easy to convince yourself that the grass is greener on your rivals’ side of the fence (and to even become obsessed with peeking over the fence to see what they’re up to). These feelings do serve an important purpose: By doing market research on your competitors, you can work out exactly how to provide a product or service that is superior. This is the reason that I sometimes fly on other airlines - often, great ideas are sparked when you notice a problem that a competitor faces and try to find a good solution yourself.
"While it’s beneficial to keep an eye on the competition, you must remain focused on your own team, and on your own products and services. Companies that are always trying to keep up with the Joneses will always be a step behind, and this can foster a culture that is, at its core, reactionary. Businesses that are reactionary forgo innovation and can quickly become irrelevant to consumers. After all, what’s the point in buying something from you that another company has already done better? Show ambition, put some effort into creativity and focus on developing the next big thing, and your company will emerge as the one that others want to copy."
So, what tips does Branson have for any fledgling entrepreneurs looking to get ahead of the field?
I usually favor directness, but when it comes to dealing with competitors, sometimes your point can be better communicated through subtlety. The viral launch of BLAH Airlines earlier this year is a great example. Below a deeply uninspiring tagline that assures passengers that “you will get there,” BLAH’s clunky website lists a few “special” features on their flights like windows and armrests. This beige, bland, boring business also launched a six-hour video last month showing what every excruciating minute on a BLAH Airlines flight was like.
People quickly realized that Virgin America was behind the whole thing. Many said that BLAH reminded them of our real-life rivals and highlighted how different Virgin America is. With some imagination and subtlety, our team was able to get one over on the competition - without mentioning any company by name.
Learn to take it, as well as dish it out
I headed to Mexico City recently to help launch our new company, Virgin Mobile Mexico. Before my arrival, a competitor leaked a fake story that we were launching “Virgin Tacos” there.
There is no such company, of course, but rather than make a fuss about it, I met up with some of Mexico’s leading bloggers for lunch (we had tacos, of course!), introduced them to a few of our staff and explained why our mobile company can provide consumers with something different than the competition.