The battle for business has never been more brutal. The casualty rate for new and even established businesses is reaching a critical point. A recent study pointed out that businesses across the board have a 71% chance of failing within the first ten years. It really is war out here.
You can start making your business bucket list, or your can learn how to cooperate. We talked about how to compete in an earlier blog, but now it’s time to look at your business from the opposite angle. The very nature of business (and war) demands cooperation as a base condition: coordination and organization are necessary in order for you to adequately bring to bear your time, space, and material so that nothing is wasted and you are firing on all cylinders.
What determines defeat in war is often merely inadequate allocation of resources. A brilliant general is, above all things, efficient. Ralph Waldo Emerson once told the story of how Napoleon, after roundly destroying the combined might of the Russian and the Austrian Empires at the battle of Austerlitz, dryly commented, “The Austrians do not know the value of time.” A focused campaign against the enemy requires that each player perform to the utmost within their specialized roles within a narrow window of time.
It’s pretty painful to contemplate the terrible losses our present business culture has accrued through misguided, uncoordinated, and meaningless competition. In the technology sector particularly, we’ve seen serious damage done to the basic ecosystem that small businesses depend on, making it even more difficult for new companies to take root. What use is 4G phone when your metroplex only has 3G infrastructure? Planned obsolesce in storage forces us to be continually shifting around our mission critical databases.
Everything is connected: manufacturers and hardware engineers rely on developers and programmers, who in turn rely on their users. App development has never caught up to the full potential of the tablet and the smartphone, and many technologies have been left stranded, either because there are not supporting infrastructures in place, or because they’ve been locked down in intellectual property. What has intellectual property brought you, other than a drawer full of tangled, obsolete, and non-interchangeable chargers?
Talent has been similarly snatched up. Now many investors don’t even bother going through the whole start-up charade. They just circumvent the whole process and hire engineers not to develop in order to prevent reverse engineering and competition. In 1998, a team of engineers at Microsoft had actually developed a touchscreen e-reader, but the team was directed by management, “Stop coming up with new ideas.”
Of course there have been some great investors who are really excited about supporting new technologies, changing the world, and being a part of the next big thing. But just as many have had a predatory attitude, and the start-up culture has done much to ravage the innovations of several generations of technology.
There have been some steady, sane voices, but surrounded as they’ve been by an island of insanity, they’ve done little good and much mischief as their good ideas have been generally ill-used. In the absence of careful planning and cooperation, the technology sector is looking much like an unplanned development, sprawling out of control.
The fact is, businesses are linked together in a kind of ecosystem. Many businesses have discovered this through painful experience: when something goes wrong with their supply chain, or some calamity makes their consumers skittish, they suddenly realize that they’re not alone. For many businesses, though, it’s too late. This tough economy makes SNAFUs harder to recover from than ever.
Knowing about the relative health of other companies you depend on can help you plan to avert disaster, and even to exploit it to your advantage. This doesn’t mean destroying a weak link. But it may mean changing course, and being able to act more quickly then your competitors. It can also yield a business opportunity. Look around and try to find a better way. Think about all the companies that will be impacted, and you may come across a few ideas to answer the need. Look around again: who can you partner with to make your idea happen? Who might want to prevent you?
If this sounds Machiavellian to you, it might be you don’t really have the heart for business. In reality, it’s just good sense. Business people cannot afford to be idealists. In an economy where it has become increasingly impractical to create your openings, you are better served by acting on the ones that arise. This is the most efficient utilization of resources.
Here are a few ways to start thinking cooperatively:
1. Ironically enough, you have to begin by thinking opportunistically. This is a shift in orientation for most people. To rigorously question each circumstance, scanning it quickly to see if some advantage might arise from it, seems to them manipulative and disingenuous. But this is what you must do. Once you train yourself to think like this, the world will appear more and more to you as a grid of intersecting interests, and you will be in a powerful position to see how people can help each other, as well as how to help yourself. You will see how peoples solutions so often lie just our of their range of comfort, and only requires that they reach a little to grasp it. It will make you a better competitor, too.
2. The key to cooperation is to scan each circumstance with your own network of interconnecting interests in mind. Helping others helps you, because if your network is strong it can support a healthy diversity of businesses. There is plenty you can do to support others without even stepping outside the flow of your day or spending a dime. Passing on a friends name or dropping a helpful hint is so easy, but so many people let these opportunities go by.
3. When you get good data or learn something new, ask yourself: who in my network needs to know this? What is a small thing to you can make all the difference to someone else’s survival. Sharing relevant, actionable information is one of the best ways you can support your network.
4. Know your enemy. Definitely make sure you are not cooperating with the competition! You should have no confusion about who is a threat to your success. In the current climate of consumer disappointment and disenchantment, you will missing a major theater of war if you haven’t positioned yourself oppositionally to the minefields of your competition.
5. Pool and share resources. This is a great way to make your own resources go further. Always insist on reciprocity, don’t help people who won’t help you. If they can’t at the time, you may have some reason to make an exception, but don’t put up with people who are unwilling to reciprocate. Tell people clearly how they can help you, keep reiterating it, and if they just can’t get it, withdraw politely, and find a new partner.
6. Build your own team. If you’re new in business, you may not be able to join an established network. That’s ok: build your own. Find other businesses that are coming up like you and establish your own community. You’ll be competing together against other established networks and industries, so choose players with complimentary strengths. Sometimes you’ll have to look past the obvious to see what connections you have with other businesses. Napoleon wasn’t really a loner. He depended implicitly on Marshals Murat, Massena, Bernadotte, Desaix, Ney, Davout, and Lannes, to name a few obvious collaborators. When Ney let him down, the result was Waterloo, which didn’t work out so well for Napoleon in the end.
Changing the way you think, or your plan of attack, is similar to changing any habit. For a while you will have to work through a structured and intentional process, but soon enough thinking relationally will happen naturally, and even run in background while you focus on other things. Like an elite special ops warrior or experienced sharpshooter, you must allow your subconscious to do all the complex calculations while you visualize the goal. The enemy is upon you and you can see the whites of their eyes. The time to start fighting for your business is now.
Many thanks to Alan Gur Arye for creating the top image.