Oof, competition. It’s one of those words which can make us curl up and feel a bit weird, and even when we’re long established, comparison with competition (whether logical or completely unfounded) can throw us off track unexpectedly.
But what IS competition, really? And why is it a good thing to be friends with your competitors?
Without further ado, let’s dive into this week’s episode and find out!
What is competition?
This topic has popped up a few times in previous episodes, and we thought it was about time it got its own centre stage moment. But what is competition? Is it 41, like the meaning of life?
Carla (after some time in business, it has to be said) feels that each of us operates in a category of one – that it’s impossible to replicate a specific person, so really there is no competition. Your service, your style, what you do, your work/art/creative output, your client experience – everything is a unique combination to you and those things are what make people connect with you over the others in the same industry.
But of course even with that view, there is a market for your thing – which might be defined by geography, or what you charge. There will always be people in the same industry as you, and there will always be people at different price points to you – cheaper, more expensive, and of course similar pricing.
It’s worth thinking a bit more broadly – if you’re a female photographer, is your competition other female photographers? Is it all photographers? If you’re an artist or a maker, is your competition other artists or something totally different?
For example, Carla’s other companies (Ink Drops stationery and TEMPRD Chocolate) are both competing in the gift market, which is much bigger than either stationery or chocolate alone. And there’s something to learn from that for creative services and creative stuff.
Similarly, two artists selling greetings cards won’t necessarily have the same audience and customers – it’ll be their work, not the card, that’s appealing. So they can sell in the same shop without competing with each other.
Feeling and fearing competition
Maybe some of this harks back to corporate – a male oriented, bigger business kind of background. Whereas in recent years, small businesses have increased massively, and a large proportion of them are female business owners.
And women are conditioned from childhood to be kind, to be modest, and not quite to let men win, but there are some weird undertones about competing, for women.
Does the concept of competition keep us small? If it keeps us from being as authentically ourselves as we can be, then it does keep us small, and we’re not fans of that.
Gaining traction through community
Sarah’s noticed that a bunch of the businesses that do really well are the ones which have a sense of community, which dispel the idea of competition and who work with people who might be considered their direct competitors. Collaborative efforts seem to work better than pitching against each other.
Business has changed massively in the last 10-15 years – the internet has of course made a huge impact, but also women have stepped up – we have loads more female businesses, female leaders – and women teaching this stuff, too.
In short, we don’t have a quick definition of competition. But we think the competitive landscape has changed – whether you’re aiming at the same market or the same location, the same type of person or the same creative practice, competition is broader and less scary than we’ve been taught!
Peers & mentors
Can competition be people you see as your peers? Or is it people who are a few steps ahead of you? Behind you? Does it come from comparisonitis rather than a fair assessment of both businesses?
Something we have both experienced is finding circles of other photographers, encountering people we were slightly in awe of, and then discovering they were just like us, and drawing inspiration from that. It helps when those people are, like the ones we’ve met, generous in time and knowledge and spirit – but it’s also interesting to note that there’s usually something you can share with them too, something you can teach each other, even if it’s not directly related to your creative practice or your industry.
As we’ve talked about before, community is so important for running a creative business, or even being a creative with no intention of ever monetising your work.
A community made up of people who are all doing the same thing, dealing with the same problems and issues and difficulties (and good stuff, of course), means everyone gets it. It’s a relief, and a feeling of belonging, all rolled into one.
We’ve both had some interesting experiences when asking our clients about competition, too – a mix of shrinking from the word and finding that they’re already mates with the person offering the most similar service to them.
Competition means there’s a market
Having spent half the episode trying to define this weird word, and then convincing you and ourselves that it doesn’t exist, we are of course here to now tell you that it’s important that it does exist, to a point.
(oh come on, you don’t come here for logic and sensibleness, do you?!)
But it is a fact that from a purely economic view, competition is a good thing. If you are starting a business, it is fuck tonnes easier to get people to buy your stuff if they are already familiar with the concept of what you do (cough, mermaiding in 2015, cough).
If people have a point of reference for your thing, then they can choose whether they want to buy your take on it – which is easier than having to educate them about something brand new.
So sometimes competition exists and is good!
Networking lockouts – the great dilemma
We were both initially extremely dubious about the common practice in networking groups of operating a lockout policy – so each geographic group only has one person with each type of business/industry, and while they hold membership, no one else who does the same thing is allowed to join.
A few years in, we still have mixed feelings about this. Having industry peers around can be useful, and it can feel unnecessarily exclusive.
But – during the pandemic, when everyone was floundering and pretending or hoping not to lose everything, it felt like a much safer space to be the only photographer in the room (ok, zoom room) when things were bad.
Equally, being in a group where there are other people working in the same field, who have experienced the same issues, pandemic or otherwise – that can be really valuable.
Maybe this one is just down to personal preference?
Secrets – all the secrets
Can we talk about secrets? And withholding knowledge? People can clam up over the weirdest things – like where to take photos with good scenery in the area. Which isn’t even a secret, but would be a helpful shortcut if you’re new to the area.
And then, having been all secretive, you find that there’s a particular field or farm or orchard where local photographers literally queue up at to do their seasonal shoots.
Are we taught to keep our cards close to our chest? Does this tendency develop because we have bad experiences with copying in business? Copying feels a bit playgroundish, but does sadly happen – and is immensely frustrating when it does.
At the same time, nothing is truly original, and the knowledge of any type of craft is not generally arcane or restricted to a favoured few. You can learn it. In fact, we all learned it from somewhere, so there’s no reason not to share.
Fear of copying can hold us back – we keep things under wraps so long that someone else releases something similar before us, and then we feel bad. But it’s a hard balance, because having your work stolen and copied is also a horrible feeling.
We all had to learn on the way up – we can all, within reason, share that knowledge. Not spending all of our time giving our time and expertise for free, of course, but paying it forward a bit.
A secret that started a friendship
You guys have definitely heard the story of how we met by now (if not, go listen to our intro episodes here and here). What we haven’t shared yet is that Carla at that point was completely convinced she was a rubbish photographer because not every single photo she took was a masterpiece / worth delivering to her clients.
She said sadly to Sarah about only liking maybe one in three of her photos and Sarah responded with WHAT THE FUCK. Sarah had, in turn, been to a big conference years before, where a huge rock star photographer had got up and told everyone that for a wedding he would shoot over ten thousand photos – and deliver a few hundred.
In our shared industry, this is the most bizarre thing that no one tells you – and it was such a relief for us both to realise that you don’t have to get every single shot perfect.
Making friends with your competitors and peers is all well and good, but it’s much easier when you’re feeling secure. Keeping everything close to your chest, paralysing comparisonitis and fear of competition generally all comes from insecurity.
When you are secure in your work, your abilities, your business, everything (reasonably – no one has it cracked 100% of the time!) then it’s much easier to be generous with your knowledge and share what you’re doing.
If it’s not going so well, you’re probably not in a position where you want to even talk about how business and creating is going, let alone advise someone about it.
But left to ourselves, would there even be competition? Is it a created concept left over from when we were competing for the juiciest bit of the woolly mammoth?
It’s very soothing when you find people who have your back – but you have to be vulnerable to find them, which is a bit scary. So it’s a process. And you have to learn to weed out the people who will ask to pick your brain over a coffee, drill you for your knowledge for three straight hours, then start up a copycat business charging the square root of fuck all.
(Spoiler – they are not your competition, but it’s bloody annoying!)
That advice you always get? Don’t do that
Literally every business course and article ever says that, to get to grips with pricing, to identify your competitors and see what they’re doing and charging.
While this is not a completely useless exercise in all ways, it’s not that helpful either – what they’re charging relates to their life and business and costs and overheads, not yours.
Realistically, people will choose you because they get you, and because they feel that you get them – and at that point, no other person’s [insert Thing you create here] will do, because it’s yours they want.
So you might as well connect with and talk to the other people doing it – you might all learn from each other.
Something else we’d like to squash here, which often comes up in competition discussions, is perception and spin. Mainly around pricing / turnover / income.
We can say, accurately, that we tripled our turnover from our first year in our second year. But if your first year was a total turnover of £111, then tripling it still doesn’t actually get you that much, even if it sounds impressive. (There is nothing wrong with tiny figures when you start, for clarity – we just wanted to highlight that sometimes what people say, especially online, sounds more dramatic than it is, and shouldn’t make you feel bad).
And finally, triggers
Because we’re all about honesty on this podcast, even if it makes us uncomfortable – triggers. Specifically, people who for no logical reason trigger alllllll of our insecurities around our work, creativity, business.
We have both had them – we wanted to raise it because we absolutely know this is a thing, and no one ever talks about it!
Without going into too much detail, sometimes these are people who objectively are no better or more successful than you are; sometimes they are people you know, sometimes not. Sometimes they are a few steps ahead of you, or way ahead of you.
Usually, to combat this, we just have to step back and remember that what we see of someone else’s business is only ever the highlight reel, that they are different to us and so is their business, and that if you are feeling inferior or insecure or in any way bad when looking at what someone else is doing – put it down, stop looking and go do your thing instead.
In short, kindred spirits
You knew we were going to say that, didn’t you? In short, although competition feels fraught as a topic, it doesn’t need to steer your business. Instead, look for your kindred spirits in your industry, or just the businessy kindred spirits.
As we’ve said before, if you can’t find the space or group or connection you’re looking for, think about starting it yourself – if you’re missing it, you can guarantee others are too.