About six months ago, my company Saleduck passed two big milestones: We moved into a new office and launched in new countries. Everyone was happy and excited about our momentum. That lasted only a few days, though—until a competitor of ours hit an even bigger milestone than the ones we'd just passed.
As soon as I heard their news, it seemed to me that they'd reached a higher level of success. After talking with some friends and colleagues, I learned more details, and before long my happiness for my own company's recent achievements changed into anxiety: What did this mean for our future? Could we still compete? If so, how?
This type of nervousness is as common among startup founders and entrepreneurs as it is dangerous. Fixate too much on where your competitors are, and you'll lose sight of your own achievements—potentially exposing you to real strategic liabilities that weren't actually there until you imagined them to be. Here's how I learned to stop envying my competitors' successes in order to keep my own company focused and, well, competitive.
The milestone our competitor had hit was a numerical one, and initially, it floored me. Even though the person I'd heard it from hadn't shared it in order to make me jealous or insecure, I couldn't help fretting.
I ignored everything else that came from his mouth. All I could think about was that enormous figure: How did they possibly score such a big win in so little time?
When the surprise wore off, though, I was able to look at things more critically and learn an important lesson. The truth is that there will always be some hyper-competitive types out there—after all, chances are you're pretty competitive, too. Some are especially driven by making more than everyone else in their market or industry.
And sometimes they actually do. But I've found that the entrepreneurs who are most successful over the long term have overcome this type of growth envy. They know what makes their business unique and understand how to keep it thriving. And at a personal level, they've figured out how to do that and live a balanced and happy life.
First of all, it's important to recognize that benchmarks can be useful, and knowing how other companies in the same field are performing can give you a starting point from which to set your own goals. But it's after that more holistic benchmarking that repeated comparisons of individual milestones start becoming counterproductive. Judging yourself or your company based on the competition’s metrics can only lead to negative thinking and failure.
The reason why is because of the simple fact that we have no context for doing so—even if we think (or fear) we do. Our current position could be completely different than the immediate numbers might suggest. Just think about the variables distinguishing one company or entrepreneur from the next, market conditions aside: age, background, available resources, etc.
My brain discounted all these things when I'd heard my competitors' good news, though; The only thought I had was that my own business simply wasn't performing well enough—never mind the accomplishments we'd just made. And rather than feeling motivated by their success, I felt nervous.
Fortunately, a friend of mine who's also a entrepreneur, and has experienced this type of envy as well, taught me a simple exercise to deal with it more productively and stay positive. He said to remind myself—constantly and with conviction—that my business was simply at a different place than my competitor's, and that those roles could always switch.
The writer Jon Acruff puts this idea simply: "Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle," he reminded me. It's straightforward advice, but offers an important shift in perspective. And it's helped me take more a productive and positive approach to watching other companies succeed.
So instead of feeling jealous, I’ve learned to make someone else’s success my own motivation. And the way to do it is to think like this: "Well, that’s impressive. I’m excited to get to that point one day. How can I learn from their success—sooner rather than later?"
I've managed to turn that thinking into a habit. Not only has it helped me fight growth envy, it's made me a more strategic business leader. Today, I look at other companies’ successes and consider what it will take to get mine there—rather than worrying about what they did to get theirs to that inevitable point.
Plus, because I'm genuinely happy for other entrepreneurs’ success, I've managed to become friends with many of them, which resulted in great cooperation to set quality standards and develop and grow our markets together. I've had the opportunity to learn from them and see what methods they’ve used to hit major milestones, as well as learn from their mistakes. If you were to ask them, I'd hope they'd say the same of me.
That collaboration and understanding is something of real value. In fact, it actually helps us compete better with one another. By contrast, you get almost nothing valuable from looking at one another’s growth numbers and freaking out. It's only when you start looking at each other's growth strategies and tactics that you can learn something useful.
And like it or not, you'll never get a chance to see those if you can't start building relationships—including, and especially, with your toughest competition.