Lots, little, or no competition?

You know you really need some help. A regular psychiatrist couldn't even help you. You need to go to like Vienna or something. You know what I mean? You need to get involved at the University level. Like where Freud studied and have all those people looking at you and checking up on you. That's the kind of help you need. Not the once a week for eighty bucks. No. You need a team. A team of psychiatrists working round the clock thinking about you, having conferences, observing you, like the way they did with the Elephant Man. That's what I'm talking about because that's the only way you're going to get better.

Recently I learned that several places like this actually exist. We're going to talk about competition today, but consider the following, from an article about Paracelsus Recovery, a Swiss rehab center with people from the university where Jung studied and a "team of psychiatrists working round the clock thinking about you, having conferences, observing you".

Dr Ronit Lami, a Los Angeles and London-based “ultra-high-net-worth psychologist”, told me that when she started working in 2000, nobody knew much about the field. Now her clients want specialised professionals who understand the specific intricacies of succession planning and generational wealth transfer. Their desire is like many of their other desires, for a service that comes in a bespoke, exclusive form, a private jet rather than a commercial airline.

The question I want you to ponder: Is it better to have lots, little, or no competition?

One more quote. Consider the following, from a critique of the Canadian startup ecosystem.

There’s an interesting question here: in big startup ecosystems, why do deals happen faster and on more founder-friendly terms than in little startup ecosystems? It’s obvious that in ecosystems with more investors, they have to compete with one another. But there are also more startups. Why do more startups = more leverage for the startups?

The answer is actually pretty simple: the more startups in the scene, and the more deals happening in real time, the less time you have to think about any one deal – regardless of how many investors there are; it is solely a function of how many startups there are. And when you have very little time to evaluate each deal, you only have time to ask: “what can go right.” And that’s a negotiation that’s on the startup’s terms. You only have to time to ask, who are the founders, how fast are they growing, and who’s investing. In other words, “Are you playing the infinite game, and will you get the runway to do it?” Those are the right questions to ask.

In contrast, in the Canadian startup ecosystem where fewer deals happen, there is more time to evaluate any one startup or any one deal. The world of startups is fully knowable, and there’s plenty of time, so the time spent on a deal will expand to fill the time available. And if there’s a lot of time available, then deal diligence will quickly enter determinate territory. You will find time to ask, “what can go wrong.” And you’ll find a lot!

You can't map the above directly to our world -- the world of the small-scale expert services provider -- but I find it a very interesting example of a place where more competition benefits everybody involved. You'd have to read more of the article to get the full context and I don't want to get all Ben Thompson on you with the quotes, but the article also makes an interesting argument about how successful startup ecosystems play what James Carse calls an infinite game, and that combined with the presence of more competition on both the supply and demand sides of the market creates a more successful market that produces winners on both sides. It's reasonably accurate to reduce the author's argument to: the Canadian startup ecosystem suffers from a lack of competition, and that keeps it from growing and becoming healthier.

Would you rather have lots, little, or no competition?

In the most compressed form I can manage, here are the benefits of competition that I see:

  • Interacting w/your competitors can:

    • Deepen your market insight

    • Give you ideas/motivation for better serving your clients

    • Create win/win referral relationships

    • Lead to kismet-ey learning

  • The mere existence of competitors can increase demand, especially those that are good at thought leadership

  • Strong/intimidating competitors:

    • Encourage you to level up

    • Help clients thrive, which increases the health of the ecosystem you serve

  • Low-priced competitors:

    • Siphon off price-sensitive clients, which helps you avoid the race-to-the-bottom

    • Tend to favor implementation work & tend to over-serve clients, which encourages you to find better clients

    • Can be good implementation partners, allowing you to focus on strategy work

  • Competition contributes essential variety and vitality to the market, making it a more healthy, robust ecosystem to serve over the long term

And yet, using the words “competitor” or “competition” primes us to think in terms of loss rather than gain. We often think of competitors as those who will take something from us. This is like thinking of a bridge as an opportunity to maybe swerve over the edge and die rather than an opportunity to safely cross the body of water that’s preventing you from getting where you need to go.


  • If the word "competition" primes you to think in terms of loss, try to balance your perspective by thinking about the benefits of competition.

  • If you're convinced that little or no competition is what you'd prefer for your own business:

    • Think about what else would need to be true for your business to thrive in that little/no-competition ecosystem. For example, would you need to provide an exclusive, bespoke, high-end, expensive service?

    • What level of market insight, timing, risk tolerance, and bizdev skill would be required to perceive an unmet or under-served need in the market and gain access to those buyers so that you can have a thriving business with little or no competition?

Finally, you should meet your competitors (you might think of them as peers or colleagues). They're often a future source of referrals, and some of the benefits of competition won't accrue to you if you don't seek and maintain collegial relations with your competitors.

That’s one of the things we do in OpportunityLabs. I am not a whit abashed to say to you again: the knowledge that I've just shut down my main service offering, am starting a new one, and have just moved to a new place ought to give some of you real confidence about approaching me with a proposal for reduced pricing on OpportunityLabs. It'll be a lot harder to sell me on that in 4 to 6 months when the Results table shows participants making fat stacks.

I still do coaching where I help folks with positioning decisions, point of view, and bizdev (3 facets of the same thing, really). I did a free introductory session for a guy yesterday and at the end he insisted on paying me because it so immediately helped him get unstuck on some new bizdev activity. Ping me if you're interested.

I would really like a few of you to approach me about getting my guidance on a small-scale research project. At least one person is publicly excited about one of my too-many writing projects -- The Small-Scale Research Guide -- but until that book is done, doing better research than those "state of the industry" studies is something you'll have to figure out for yourself or get my guidance on.

Got something else you'd like my brain in the mix on? Ping me, yo.