All about competitors

Aug 15, 1994

As someone with a business orientation and education who started competing at a young age, competition is something I’ve always been interested in. I take pride in being a pretty competitive guy— one who likes to win whenever I can. But as architects, engineers, and environmental scientists, the whole concept of competition may be foreign to you. You’ll probably admit that you do have competitors— but for most of you, the people you square off against regularly are your former schoolmates, neighbors, fellow Rotarians, or someone you have commonality with through either your religion or your kids. As a result, these “peer-competitors” are certainly not— in most cases— anyone you would want to see suffer. Let’s take a look at some of the issues surrounding the subject of “competition,” and how they could be affecting your firm: People love to spread bad news. One thing’s for sure— just about all smart people are critical, and they will inevitably gossip and say bad things about one another. It’s human nature. Competitors are often the target of such discussion. After all, if you can’t say anything bad about a competitor, who can you say something bad about? The “bad” news may be wrong. Because people love to spread a bad word, a lot of what you hear about your competitors probably isn’t true. This was driven home to us a couple of weeks ago. We had a 23-year-old civil engineer tell us that he wouldn’t go to work at a particular firm in his local area because the firm was supposed to be unethical, that something had happened five or six years ago that he considered a conflict of interest. While we knew his understanding of the event was hogwash, he accepted what he heard from his co-workers as the truth and never once considered that his source could have been biased. Successful firms make a great target. Just as with successful people, a firm that is successful probably has enemies. A successful firm makes an easy target. There will always be someone jealous of their success— someone who will try to take advantage of any misstep they might make in a project or business dealing. And my experience has been that if there isn’t any dirt to dig up on the successful firm, someone will make it up. Some people are just paranoid. I once worked for a guy who routinely overestimated how successful our competitors were. He would turn a five-person company into a 25-person company. I don’t think he did it intentionally— it was just his nature to be fearful of anyone he thought could threaten us. But there are some firm leaders out there who deliberately whip their people into a frenzy about the competition— and use this tactic quite effectively to keep them from getting complacent. Former employees make the toughest competitors. Occasionally, you’ll meet someone in this business who is unusually focused on beating one and only one firm. My experience is that most of these people worked at that firm at one time. These former employees— whether they were fired or left on their own—have something to show the world. They may become obsessed with proving how stupid their former employers were for letting them get away. This gives them a focus and drive that sustains them through any obstacle, and makes them almost impossible to beat. And knowing the weaknesses of their competitor from the inside out doesn’t hurt them either. Intelligence on competitors isn’t that hard to get. Getting information on a competitor is pretty easy. I had one firm tell me yesterday how another company was trying to get access to their work product performed for a public sector client through the Freedom of Information Act. D&B financial profiles are available instantly through many on-line information services, and they can be very telling. Former employees of a firm may have a direct pipeline to that company’s grapevine. State agencies’ proposal files can tell you everything from billing rates to who a firm’s best technical people are. Like mosquitoes in the summer, competition in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business will always be there. But good competitors push us all to keep improving in every way. And although I hate to admit it, that’s probably a good thing! Originally published 8/15/1994

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