Although I never finished high school or college, I love to learn. I know a lot of entrepreneurs who are the same way — too ADD to learn within the structure of the school system, but who instead find other ways to feed their minds. Two years ago in PROFIT, I wrote about my MBA — my Mentor Board of Advisors, a group of people to whom I turn for advice and learning, whether it’s business or personal. That group wouldn’t be complete without mentors in my own industry — yes, competitors of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?
I can’t understand why more people don’t turn to their competition for help. If approached properly, I think there are few more valuable sources of advice.
There’s an old saying that goes: “It’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Most entrepreneurs view their competition as the devil — someone to fight, to keep away. Personally, I’ve always been one to make friends instead of enemies, and I’ve tried the same approach in business. Much to my surprise, it really works!
I identified three companies in the global junk-removal business that really seem to be doing things right — working ethically and building a business that truly wows their customers. Then, I befriended them all. Before you write me off as crazy, hear me out; then judge for yourself whether or not making friends with your competitors could help you in your business.
Our closest rival is Tampa, Fla.-based College Hunks Hauling. Years ago, instead of going through lawyers, I called them to chat about a potential conflict we were going to face. I presented my problem: they were considering awarding a franchise to one of our employees who had signed a non-compete agreement with 1-800-GOT-JUNK? We talked about how we each respected each other’s businesses, and I learned that they wanted to be the Burger King of our industry if we were its McDonald’s. From that first call, we agreed to work together, and it has been give and take ever since. We’ve shared learnings and struggles, and frequently ask one another for favours. Once, for example, we asked them to remove marketing language from their website because it was too similar to ours. We both agreed that distinctive competition was best for both of us. They didn’t award a franchise to our employee, by the way. Instead, she is a franchise partner in our system.
Our second closest competitor is Any Junk out of London, England. Its managing director, Jason Mohr, is a fantastic guy. We recently invited him to the Junktion, our head office in Vancouver, and even offered to pay half his travelling costs. Jason is building a brand in the U.K. the same way we would, and I believe something great will come of the relationship we’re building, whether we compete, acquire or partner with him. He, too, sees value in learning from the competition and in sharing information. We’ve even discussed sharing best practices that are working across the pond.
Lastly, there is Just Junk out of St. Catharines, Ont. President and CEO Michael Thorne is passionate about customer service and is building a great brand. Recently, knowing I’d be in Toronto, I called Mike, introduced myself and shared my philosophy on learning from the competition. I led by sharing information first — key when approaching the competition. If you want openness, start by being open. Mike and I ended up talking about our marketing efforts, average job sizes, challenges we were experiencing with training, who we felt were the up-and-comers in the industry and strategies for growth. When we met in person, we established mutual trust. We enjoyed a fantastic meeting, with an open sharing of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Mike even shared his dispatch software with me and his key company metrics.
I know my approach bucks tradition, but I feel strongly that doing things differently — taking the road less travelled, as it were — has served us well. Besides, if someone really wants information about your firm, they’ll get it. So, why not be a leader by stepping up and building trust and rapport with your competition? Every time I’ve tried to stop a competitor, it has cost me precious time and often big dollars on lawyers, when instead I could have put that money and energy toward growth. If a competitor wants to compete, they will, so my approach is to embrace them, befriend them and learn from them. Learning and leadership will be your competitive advantage.
I believe that in life, and in business, you get what you give. I’ve started consistently asking my competitors: “How can I help you?” — and I’m often surprised by the positive response. Why fight your competition when you can work with them to build better businesses, learn from each other’s mistakes and be strong leaders, together, in your industry?
While 1-800-GOT-JUNK? is currently the largest in the junk-removal business, who knows when I might need my competition for help? I challenge you to pick up the phone and call your fiercest, toughest competitor and take them to lunch. I’d love to hear how it goes!