There are many thought-provoking notions to be found within the pages of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work - a strategy for celebrating “calm” in the world of work devised by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
One such notion is that comparison is not necessary - or in some cases, is altogether detrimental - for the success of a company.
Fried and Heinemeier Hansson explain:
Lots of companies are driven by comparisons in general. Not just whether they’re first, second or third in their industry, but how they stack up feature for feature with their closest competitors. Who’s getting which awards? Who’s raising more money? Who’s getting all the press? Why are they sponsoring that conference and not us?
Referencing their own company Basecamp, around which the book centres, the authors continue:
We don’t compare. What others do has no bearing on what we’re able to do, what we want to do, or what we choose to do. There’s no chase at Basecamp, no rabbit to pursue. Just a deep satisfaction with doing our very best work as measured by our happiness and our customers’ purchases… The opposite of conquering the world isn’t failure, it’s participation. Being one of many options in a market is a virtue that allows customers to have a real choice.
It’s an admirable and idealistic stance, that’s for sure. But when it comes to business (within technological spheres, in particular), I must question its feasibility. It’s one thing to take the academically “correct” approach or to be idealistic about design or integration patterns. It’s an altogether different skillset to engineer something feasible - something your end users will love.
Fried and Heinemeier Hansson align themselves with Mark Twain in his belief that “Comparison is the death of joy.”
From a personal perspective, this makes perfect sense. If you are constantly obsessing about what you lack in comparison to others, then you’re bound to go through life feeling unfulfilled and ultimately unsatisfied. The biggest house, the fastest car, the latest gadgets, the corner office, the exotic holidays… hollow, materialistic measures of success that bear little to no correlation to your long-term happiness.
From a work perspective, however, I’m a firm subscriber to the “innovation breeds innovation” school of thought.
Let’s consider the Apple iPhone for a moment.
According to Statista, Apple has been amongst the top 5 smartphone vendors in the world since 2009. That’s ten years amid the top tier – a whole decade of successful product development and delivery, albeit to varying degrees. Apple’s share of global new smartphone sales reached almost 19 percent in the last quarter of 2017, with over 216 million iPhones sold in that year alone.
Those numbers make for impressive reading. But imagine if instead of a 19% market share, Apple had 90%. What would that mean for consumers?
Well, for starters it would mean nearly every smartphone user in the world would have an iPhone and rely on iOS. Good news if you frequently use AirDrop, Apple Pay or other functionality, but otherwise it will have pretty much zero impact on the lives of common individuals. Apple and their shareholders will be the beneficiaries. Their monopoly on the market would include every square on the board game bar Old Kent Road – a cash cow of mammoth proportions, untouchable in their industry.
But with ”untouchable” companies come “untouched” outputs.
Think about it.
Who are McDonalds without Burger King? Sky without Virgin? Or Apple without Samsung?
It would be easy for established, global companies to rest on their laurels if it weren’t for competitors breathing down their necks, forcing innovation, improved costs and enhanced outputs. And it’s the customer who benefits.
The flip side is Facebook – a company without competition for many years – that is ostensibly unravelling before our eyes, with founder Mark Zuckerberg floundering under pressure from Congress about questionable company policies as recently as 23rd October. There’s undoubtedly more to come, and not just in the form of grovelling, nostalgia-themed ads designed to claw back customer trust. The very fact that comments are turned off on their YouTube channel speaks volumes.
The reality is, that companies - of any size - cannot afford to be complacent. It’s not enough nowadays to put out a product that make phone calls from wherever you are in the world. Instead, it’s a waterproof device with a video camera, access to billions of songs, a TV, a calorie counter, a fitness tracker, a games console, all connected to your wristwatch with in-built heart monitor… the list of features is endless, and so are the possibilities.
Similarly, “customer service” isn’t waiting on hold for an hour to speak to poorly trained call centre staff. Consumers want quick responses - whether by phone, email or Live Chat – morning, noon and night. And if your company fails to deliver, there’s sure to be another that succeeds.
To my mind, it’s the competition that keeps companies at the top of their game, much the same as opponents do in sport.
Roger Federer won his most recent Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2018 at the age of 36. Considering his first Grand Slam title came at Wimbledon in 2003, that’s a jaw-dropping achievement. However, if Federer had faced a novice player – let’s say me – every year, instead of Sampras, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Čilić, do you really think he’d be the legend that he is today?
Federer has pushed himself to the limits of what his body and mind can achieve at the highest level of his profession for more than 15 years, and still comes out on top against some of the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen because he has to. He can’t afford to skip a few training sessions or rely on his raw, natural talent. He has to work hard at being the best – to develop and hone the skills required to excel - and his competition is the reason why.
Superstar Serena Williams has arguably achieved an even more astonishing feat. Not only has she won even more Grand Slam titles in her career (23 to date) but she reached the finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018, having given birth to her daughter the previous September. In becoming the most Grand Slam-winning female tennis player of all time, she has beaten 12 different rivals ranked World No.1, including her sister Venus.
Competition in the context of business is an ally. It’s an asset, and one which any company owner, manager or employee would be folly to ignore.
The important distinction to make, however, is to not let comparison define you. As outlined by Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, the success of a business should be defined by happiness and satisfaction, not by ruthlessly working to put rivals out of business to increase your market share.
Look at what your competitors are doing and strive to improve your own offering. Not to diminish their product, but to elevate yours. Explore the multitude of ways you can enhance the customer experience and embrace them. Not simply because other companies have, but because it’s the right thing to do. Open source software is a shining example of what can be accomplished when contributors collaborate to achieve a mutually beneficial goal. Business doesn’t need to be secretive, gated or protected at all costs to thrive.
Comparison isn’t the death of joy. Comparison is the birth of innovation. So, let’s do our thing, then do it better. Let’s be inspired and motivated by our competition. What have we got to lose? It is our actions that ultimately define us, after all. Not our opponents.