The Competition

by Krishna on May 2, 2007

Once upon a time, people could get a good laugh by uttering the phrase “Japanese quality”. This was a time when Japanese products meant rip-offs and shoddy workmanship. Today, that same phrase evokes respect in consumers. Toyota is the prime example, having just overtaken General Motors as the world’s largest automaker.

For years, China and India suffered under misguided closed economies and there seemed no hope for the millions of poor people in those countries. Today, the same nations have opened up and are among the fastest growing economies in the world. Living standards are increasing by leaps and bounds. Vast populations are crossing over the poverty line to lead a better life.

The point I want to make is: Be careful when making assumptions of what the competition cannot do. Otherwise, you will be very surprised. This is almost the same as saying not to underestimate the competition, but there is a deeper, subtler point I want to make. And that is about the actual weaknesses of the competition.

Many business people like to make fun of the weak points of their competitors when the latter are behind. These weaknesses are real. For example, a company has buggy products. It may have unskilled employees. It doesn’t understand Internet marketing. It frequently lags behind on innovation.

However, what people don’t understand is that these problems are fixable. There is nothing stopping the company from spending more time and effort on getting its quality right or hiring better employees in development or marketing. Most of the weaknesses can usually be solved by more money, greater effort or the passage of time.

So what can happen? A company has problems. It could fix them, but, for whatever reason, it doesn’t do anything. But along the way, something changes. A product finds a unexpected niche market. There is a change in the executive ranks. Suddenly, there is an excitement in the air and a hunger for success. The company develops the will and courage to tackle its problems head-on. It makes a comeback.

Most companies in a death spiral do end up dead. But many companies hang around for a long time, not showing any progress, but not quite dying. They have potential and are good candidates for such reversal of fortunes.

This means that basing your company’s market leadership solely on a comparison with your competitor contains the seeds of self-destruction. The real way to stay ahead is to deliver what the market needs, time after time. You don’t want to tell the user, “We are better than others.” You want to tell them, “We give you what you want. Every single time.” When you bridge the gap between yourself and the market, the competition have to both do what you are doing and also fix their weaknesses. In this scenario, you always have a headstart.

Although I have been talking primarily about companies, the 2nd paragraph shows how this is true for countries. Quite often on blogs and talk radio, I come across disparaging remarks about various religions, races, cultures and communities who are currently economically backward. The person who mocks them presumes that they cannot do anything to change their backwardness. But, time and again, history has proved this wrong.

The case of American immigrants over several centuries is an amazing example. Many of the immigrants, from the Puritans to European Jews, who reached American shores fled poverty and oppression in their native lands. Here, they and their children succeeded in ways that would have been unimaginable when they started off on an unknown journey to the New World. They found a free, supporting environment, and hard work did the rest.

Again, same for individuals and personalities. Don’t mock the introvert eating alone in the corner of the school cafeteria. He is ill suited for his current school environment which values showmanship. Let him loose in the real world. He will find a job faster and he may be able to pick up better social skills with support from mentors. Then he will cream you at both brains and charisma.

In the reverse manner, don’t rest on your laurels just because you can do something better or know something more than someone else. For all you know, they may be secretly ashamed of their ignorance or lack of capability. They may be burning the midnight oil to fix the weaknesses you are gloating over.

Always, always stay focused on continuing to improve yourself.

As Forrest Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that.

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