Mike Payne - Partner at Fancy Creative Studio


When I was 11 years old, I was living in a small tourist town in Michigan. I loved sports, and was highly competitive. At the time my father was an avid runner and was constantly entering races of different lengths. At some point he got my brother into running with him. Not to be left out, I decided to enter a race as well. Immediately convinced that I was going to win, I set out to prepare and began running laps around our 1/2 acre yard. It wasn’t fun, but the desire to be the best kept my legs turning, even though my mind was on Age of Empires II and the pretty girl I had recently become “pen pals” with. After an extremely long and gruelling training season of a week and a half, it was race time. Fast forward past the early wake up call, outfit selection, and pre-race nerves, the trigger went and my legs started turning. 

Rewind to my father’s seasoned advice two weeks before when I had decided to enter the race: “You have to have a long game”; “Don’t let the pace of the people around you change your stride”; “Focus on keeping your pace, and you’ll make your time”. You know, smart, sensible race advice. 

Fast forward to the adrenaline inducing gun shot to start the race, and a few of the runners that decided to sprint off the line. I decided to sprint off the line too. I didn’t win the race, in fact I walked a lot of it, because I used up all my gas in the beginning. Why? Because a few of my competitors jumped ahead quickly, and instead of focusing on my stride, I reacted.

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I’m a few years into a new career direction of working with startups and small businesses, through my creative studio “Fancy”. At Fancy we’ve set out to help these entities better understand their values internally, and how those play into reaching audiences externally. We establish how those factors translate into their brand visually, and then into every other level of consumer experience afterward. I’ve observed some interestingly prevalent stress symptoms through a high percentage of the people I’ve worked with so far, and after countless intentional conversations I’ve come to see that one of the most prominent sources of this anxiety is an unhealthy view of competition. I haven’t just seen this in others, I’ve experienced it in my own ventures as well. 

I’ve realized that easily one of the most paralyzing and disproportionate causes for anxiety in my professional life has been the hours spent perceiving what my competitors were up to.

Are they better at business than me? 
Are they whispering sweet nothings in my customer’s ears?
Are they secretly building a ground-breaking, industry-defining technology that I haven’t yet thought of?

I don’t believe these damaging perspectives on competition have developed accidentally, I think its something that has been taught (I saw it at University), and even perpetuated by fear-driven culture, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The moral of the story here is, we need to change our perspectives when it comes to competitive forces in our respective industries, and we need to do it before we die (from stress or old age). We need to realize there’s a big difference between staying better than the rest, and becoming the best. I’ve outlined a few tips below for taking our eyes off of our competitors and keeping the main thing the main thing. After all, how can we effectively push forward if we’re constantly looking side-to-side?

1. Stay in Your Lane

You know when you’re stuck in traffic and the lane next to you seems to be speeding by (road rage engage), while you’re basically sitting there with your car in park? You begin to get obsessed with the cars next to you and their speed. Before you know it, you’re so caught up in their progress that you forget to look ahead.

The same can happen in business. But, rather than becoming captivated by what your competition is up to and where they’re going, it’s a much better use of your time to focus on your own business and objectives.

Those 40 minutes you spent monitoring their Facebook page or customer reviews could have been used for closing in on a new client or improving your creative process.

2. #LiveAuthentic

Most of us have used the hashtag, and we can admit that the word “authentic” officially hit buzz word status in early 2015, but that doesn’t diminish its relevance. Our level of authenticity as business people, or the integrity of our products or services, will directly affect our audience engagement and consumer relationships. However, when we are captivated by the behaviours and actions of our competition more than we are by the value we’re providing, we quickly start to become something we’re not. 

When we focus too much on what our competitors are doing, we tend to lose a little bit of ourselves. I see businesses trying to duplicate the success of others all too often. Do they succeed? Rarely ever, if not never. Duplication is futile, you need to focus on what makes you (and your brand) special.

The more we focus on our competition, the easier it is to lose our sense of identity. Similar to how I reacted to the sprinters at the beginning of my race and paid for it in the end, each time we react to a move made by the competition we risk damaging our brand by making choices that don’t truly represent what we believe.

The hard truth is that brands that aren’t honest are finding it really hard to survive these days. There is a two-way conversation happening all the time. If you are not authentic, and do not establish a trusted relationship with your audience, they now have the power to directly impact perception of your brand, and ultimately the relevance of your company. If you compromise trust, you lose relevance and if you lose relevance, consumers lose interest.

3. Keep it Romantic

Stop stalking your competition and start dating your customers. The more you are focused on the threats around you, the less attention you can give to the opportunities in front of you. It’s time to invest less in competitor creeping, and start buying into quality products and strong consumer relationships.

Similar to real life dating, the cornerstone for any marketing activity must be transparency and trust. You should grow to love your audience, and endeavour to build relationships rather than simply making demands or telling them what you want them to buy.

You need your audience to be invested in you as a brand and as an entity. In today’s ever-changing landscape, there are more choices than ever competing for attention, and as a result, you must prove you are worthy of consumers time and attention. Focus on becoming the best, rather than just staying better than the rest.

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