I recently spoke at an event about small business. In my talk, I discussed the importance of having relationships with your competitors — an entrepreneurial experience I found to be particularly helpful. Years ago, I operated a Sears dealer store and I was in a friendly competition with the owner of an appliance store in town. I was able to refer people to his store if an item I had was back ordered or I did not have anything comparable to sell to the customer. By doing this, I put the customer first, which helped me build loyalty.

It has long been thought that competitors should be enemies or at least healthy competitors. Think of the rivalry between Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Google, or Pizza Hut and Papa Johns — all rivalries that escalated into feuds that eventually were settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. Bad mouthing a rival does not make a business any stronger. Many companies are now finding that embracing companies in the same industry is very beneficial. Disney storyteller and branding consultant Annie Franceschi wrote a blog post titled “The Value of Building Relationships with Competitors,” which shares the feelings many have about competitors. In her posting, she points to a common refrain one might hear from a business person in a competitive environment.

If I were to try and befriend a competitor, I thought they might:

  • Steal my ideas
  • Steal my clients
  • Think I’m weird (spoiler alert: that cat is out of the bag)
  • Make fun of me on social media
  • Make me feel inadequate and talentless

I realized — having relationships with competitors was the perfect solution and opportunity to grow my business. Let me tell you why.

In fact, I discovered these major BENEFITS to meeting and getting to know people in my industry:

  • Empathy: I found camaraderie — people who understand the highs and lows of the work I do!
  • Support: I found support — so many enjoyed getting to know me and my story. I felt less concerned that I was bringing an enemy close and instead gaining a friend.
  • Appreciation for differences: I saw close up just how very different we all are — everyone I talked to had a unique story and perspective on branding. They had great sides of their businesses — some overlapped with mine, some complimented.
  • Collaboration: I discovered opportunity for collaboration and partnerships within several businesses that I would have never considered.
  • Friendships:
    • I gained friendships with so many professionals whose work I admire, and we’ve been cheering each other on.
    • A strong referral network: And it solved my referral problem! With just a few meetings, I built up a fantastic network of entrepreneurs that I love referring prospective clients to!

    I soon learned another business owner at the event I spoke at was mentoring one of her competitors and they are now doing shows together. They each have skills that complement one another. Working together has helped both of their businesses grow.

    Now might be the perfect time to put away the boxing gloves and embrace your competitors.

TRACY IRBY is director of the Center for Women Entrepreneurs at Texas Woman’s University and can be reached at tirby@twu.edu. The center is part of TWU’s Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership.

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