Mutual support or competitive hostility?

I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book called ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’ by Mike Isaac.  The book gives a very accurate account of the early startup years of Uber through to its massive growth and then finally having the CEO and founder, Travis Kalanick, fired as CEO and thrown off the board. The book is a riveting read and an incredible look behind the curtain of a huge-growth company. In particular it looks at what constitutes a ‘toxic culture’ and the dark side of a business that is completely driven by a ‘kill or be killed’ business mindset.

One of the main themes of the book, which struck a chord with me, is how many businesses, whether big or small, have the mindset of ‘we must kill or be killed’. Uber was incredibly aggressive with its growth targets and did not care which other companies they put out of business and what they had to do to achieve world domination. The book is a fantastic warning for any leader or business owner on how NOT to operate and grow a business.

Competitive Hostility 

‘Competitive hostility’ is the opposite of ‘mutual support’. In this mindset we believe that the world is a hostile place and that the business environment can be likened to a battle field. We believe that every competitor is a threat to our business, so to be successful we need to dominate and destroy the competitor; kill or be killed.

In this mindset we believe in scarcity; that there is not enough for everyone and we must fight to work hard to get ahead of the competitor; that no one can be trusted and we must protect everything that we own, at all costs, to secure our future success.

Uber initially operated with a competitive hostility mindset but fortunately the shareholders and some key private investors and board members painstakingly tried to turn the company around by adopting a more gentle ‘mutual support’ mindset.

What the former CEO of Uber, and many large multinational companies fail to grasp, is that there is more than enough business for multiple companies in that particular industry. Uber could still have been worth billions, even if their competitor, Lyft, owned half the global market share.

Mutual support

Mutual support is not built on a feeling of scarcity but a belief in abundance, a feeling that there is more than enough for everyone. It is a positive framework that is built on passion and inspiration and not fear. I have read a lot of books about the two different mindsets. One of my personal heroes is the late Buckminster Fuller (inventor, futurist and author). He strongly believed that to build a better world we must all start thinking in terms of ‘mutual support’. Mutual support is the idea that there is more than enough pie for everyone. It proposes that the best way to succeed is to help others succeed.

By helping each other – even our competitors – we can ALL succeed. I believe that you and your competitor can both succeed.

Strategic alliances and mutual support

I started a flight school ten years ago, grew a little too fast and ended up having three schools, then closed the Armidale and Caboolture schools to concentrate on the school at Caloundra airport. I have always operated on the assumption that there is enough business for everyone and that if you just concentrate on making your product or service better – through continuous improvement –  and you have a meaningful reason for ‘why’ you are in business, the money will follow.

To make my weather-dependent flight school business more resilient, I started the GoFly Online video platform. The Caloundra school is now at a point where I can afford to employ a CFI, and more recently, an Operations Manager, so that I can focus more on the online content. I have since formed strategic partnerships with two aircraft owners and three other flight school owners with similar values, to share resources, have cost efficiencies with maintenance and marketing, provide career pathways for staff and to share in even more slices of the never-ending pie. When we work together, we can achieve far more as a team than trying to compete and protect ourselves on our own.

Declining industries are generally hostile 

Many of us have heard the story of how the CEO of the Blockbuster video chain declined an invitation to partner with a little known startup company called Netflix. Blockbuster had a hostile competitive mindset. Now they don’t have anything.

If companies in declining industries could move to a mutual support mindset, they would be better placed to work with other businesses and innovate their way to new high-growth industries instead of protecting what they have always done. In a similar vein, I recently discovered that the R&D team at Kodak invented digital photography back in the 70s but management thought it would cannibalise their existing business, so hid the technology. Kodak’s rivals seized the opportunity and embraced the innovation. Now there’s not many Kodak moments.

Survival mode does not have to be hostile mode!

I have noticed a trend over the last 10 years when the economy softens, or we have an unexpected disruption – such as COVID 19 – and revenue decreases, that many of my competitors get even more aggressive. I understand that many businesses in this present environment are in survival mode and doing it very tough, however that is not an excuse for looking at ways of putting your competitor out of business so you can get a bigger slice of the pie.  A better way would be to look at how you can pivot and cut costs in your own business or even look at supporting and helping your entire industry, not just your own business.

Competitive hostility is rampant in the aviation industry

I have competitors who refuse to speak to me and who have tried to damage GoFly’s reputation. One of our competitors used to copy our website and special offers almost word for word. Another wrote a bad Google review in an attempt to tarnish our brand. Yet another tried to poach an aircraft that we leased and yet another wrote a letter in support of a former student’s ill-fated attempt to sue me.

What these hostile businesses don’t understand is that I actually want them to succeed. It is not a zero-sum game: I don’t have to fail for them to win and they don’t have to fail for me to win. We can all win in the long term.

I am so grateful that we have formed alliances now with businesses and individuals who have a ‘mutual support’ mindset and this helps drive and create a better company and culture, and creates businesses that are less fragile over the long term.

I also have noticed that businesses who are not driven by continuous improvement and innovation are hostile to companies who are. It is classic protectionism based on fear that the competition might come up with a better service or product than their business currently offers.

If companies spend a large proportion of their time and revenue on their own business innovation and improvement, there will be less time to worry about what a competitor is doing, and less time to try to destroy the competition. At times it is hard to operate with a ‘mutual support’ mindset in business when a large majority of your competitors believe in competitive hostility and are trying to destroy your business or aggressively poach your customers.

The ‘mutual support’ mindset is like the kind guy in the room, while the ‘competitive hostility’ mindset is like the bully waiting to hit you and steal all that you have. There are many proven ways to deal with bullies in real life. A hostile competitor should be dealt with the same way. Here are three easy ways you can deal with a hostile business bully.

  1. Ignore them (if they’re not doing any real harm, other than to your pride)
  2. Report them (if they are doing anything illegal or unethical which impacts on your business)
  3. Keep making YOUR business the best business it can be, and go back to point number 1 and ignore them

It’s hard to not to want revenge

I am a bit addicted to the TV series ‘Billions’, in which the main protagonist, a billionaire called Bobby Axelrod, believes that in the business world you have to kill, or be killed. He goes to great lengths to plan strategies to cripple his perceived enemies. At times when someone has tried to hurt me personally or professionally, I am aware of my inner Axelrod rising up, and for a moment I want revenge on the person or business that has tried to do me harm. It’s just a natural human reaction. When I feel this way, I remind myself that this will not only distract me from making my own business better but also distract from my own inner peace. Anyone who acts from a ‘competitive hostility’ mindset is living a life of fear.

Einstein’s famous question

Einstein famously stated that the most important question any individual can ask themselves is, ‘Is the Universe a friendly place?’ The CEO of Uber did not believe the universe was friendly – and the consequences for him were dire.

I believe in a friendly universe and that mutual support is a much healthier mindset to have both as individuals, businesses and the planet as a whole. The irony of the Uber story is that most people that I know, love the quick, efficient and cashless Uber experience. Uber could still have built a great company by charging customers a little bit more, treating their staff and drivers a lot better, and accepting that more than one Uber-type business can exist in the world. Hopefully Uber is now travelling in the right direction.

Competitive hostility is hard work

With a competitive hostility mindset you’re always looking over your shoulder and living in a state of paranoia and fear. You’re obsessed with what the other business is doing, more than being obsessed with making your own business better. You make yourself work harder because you believe that if you don’t work harder, your competitor will put you out of business. Having this mindset is just plain exhausting and bad for your health.

Your competitor may still go out of business

You can have a mutual support mindset with your business and your competitor might still go out of business. If you focus on making your business the best it can be for your staff and your customers, and your competitor goes out of business, this doesn’t mean that you were being competitive or hostile. It just means they either didn’t create an environment of continuous improvement or their product or service did not find a market.

Mutual support is easy

You have all heard the phrase ‘go with the flow’. This statement sums up why living with a ‘mutual support’ mindset works. You still create and work, but you’re NOT DRIVEN BY FEAR. Fear is replaced by inspiration. The work itself is what drives you, not just the end result, and you couldn’t care less about what your competitor is doing because you’re having too much fun playing in your own business.

When we heard that a local simulator operator was struggling to pay high rent in a central location, we invited him to move into our building, as I knew that our own students would love to use the sim and it was a value add-on to our own school. When we heard that a local aerobatics flying school was struggling to find a hangar to rent, we approached them to use our briefing rooms and share our hangar space – as I knew that aerobatics was an obvious next step in our own students’ training.

We were approached by two other fledgling flight schools at Redcliffe and Heck Field, to form a strategic alliance to provide our excellent instructors and our online video training. We made sure that the partners shared our desire to give awesome customer service, and both partnerships and schools are now doing well. Likewise, we invited two of our pilots who happened to be video producers and web designers, to form a partnership to share in the creation of, and the income from, our GoFly Online video platform.

Only you can decide whether to believe in hostility or support. I choose to believe that mutual support is the better option, and to surround myself with others who also believe it. I might still get bullied occasionally but life is so much more fun and peaceful with this mindset!

Damien Wills

September 2020

To read more of Damien’s blogs, click here.

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