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Coopetition – But Don’t Give Away the Farm

Many readers of this blog know that prior to devoting my career to patient empowerment and patient advocacy, I owned a small marketing company that worked specifically with service professionals and small businesses. I had clients of every flavor, from manufacturing companies to hair salons, from lawyers to book authors, to cookie-bakers and small distribution companies – a gamut.

An important part of my work was mentoring – helping others who wanted to be in business grasp the basic concepts that were necessary, helping them apply those concepts to their own fields, then jump in with both feet. I truly enjoyed the many “a-ha” moments my mentoring created.

I heard one day from one of my mentees (I’ll call her Carla), a hairdresser. Her shop had been open for about two years, was doing well, was very popular, and she was just getting ready to sink some big money into expanding it. More space, new services, high-end products, additional personnel and more. Gangbusters.

About six months before that call, a young woman, Laura, had contacted her, asking to interview Carla about owning a shop. Carla invited her to stop by and the two chatted for about an hour. She had enjoyed the experience and felt they had a lot in common.

But now Carla was beside herself. So upset! She learned that Laura had just opened a new shop only a quarter mile down the road. Carla’s friends reported that Laura was offering all those new services Carla was getting ready to offer, that those high-end products Carla would soon begin offering were already for sale in the new shop, and that a couple of the new service people Carla was planning to bring in to her expanded shop were already working for Laura.

Carla felt as if Laura had stolen all her good ideas, the very plans she was just getting ready to turn into reality. She felt it was unfair, needed to be addressed, and asked me (as her mentor) what she should do about it.

My answer stunned her and upset her.

The answer was, to contact Laura and congratulate her on opening her new shop. Then leave it alone.

Those of you who have read The Health Advocate’s Marketing Handbook know the concept of “coopetition” – that is – being cooperative with  competitors because you may be able to help each other.

But there is a difference between being cooperative – and giving away the farm.

What’s the difference? Where is that line?

The truth is, Laura was doing exactly what she should be doing before going into business for herself. She was interviewing people who were already doing what she wanted to do. She was doing her homework – her research – figuring out what would work, what people would want, what would fly well for her own business.

She asked the questions because she could, and because she should. And hopefully she asked them from many more people than just Carla.

The mistakes were all on Carla’s shoulders. Whether or not Laura told Carla that she might open a shop nearby, Carla should have realized that it was not only a possibility, but that the young woman might be a competitor one day. She could have, and should have, politely declined to answer questions, or provided answers that would not have exposed too much proprietary information.

What would have made it OK for Carla to share? Well, if Laura had contacted her from another city, or was asking basic questions that might apply to a complementary but different sort of business – then Carla could have safely let down her guard a bit. She also could have answered some basic business questions, like where to get a tax ID number or who to call to advertise in the local weekly print paper. But over-generosity, sharing her business’s proprietary secrets, was not a smart business decision.

I suspect Carla knew she should not have been so generous, and she was actually mad at herself. Of course there was nothing I could say to make her feel better. And I’m thinking she hasn’t been very helpful to anyone else who has contacted her for an interview since then. Once burned, and all that.

Carla’s shop is doing great, by the way. But she has learned a good business lesson.

We can all learn from Carla’s experience.

However… As the numbers of advocates continue to grow, there will be many chances to share ideas and good practices with those who will then share their great ideas in return. And it’s important we do so! Because there is a major difference between advocacy, and a service that’s been around for a long time…

When it comes to a new service industry like advocacy, a rising tide lifts all boats. That is – the more people offering the service in any given area, the more the public becomes aware of the possibilities that they never knew existed before, and the more the phone rings (or the email box fills) for everyone.

An important reminder for why we should continue supporting and helping each other – just not too much.


2 thoughts on “Coopetition – But Don’t Give Away the Farm”

  1. Well I can certainly relate!! A similar event happened to me when someone pursued me and picked my brian about independent nurser advocates, even offered to sub contract with me and share her office, before you know it she was offering exactly what I distinctly offered that no one else offered which was going to the ER at any time someone went to help with advocating for them from that point on. she advertises and uses much of my information I gave her and has never went through subcontracting with me or followed through with the office space. A lesson to be learned not to give it away. She has even taken my tag lines!!! Not very ethical but nothing I can do about it. I decided for my new years resolution I would just let it go and move on but I do admit it took the air out of my sails for a bit. I do wish her the best and know now that there is room for what we all offer.

  2. Laura didn’t steal anything that Carla wasn’t willing to give up. So Carla has to bear the responsibility of that. Laura let Carla know that she was planning to open a shop. She was doing the smart thing by scouting her competition. Ethically, Laura didn’t do anything wrong.

    Morally, it might be a different story. Judging by the timing, Laura most likely knew she was going to open up a shop nearby and offered services in direct competition to Carla’s weaknesses. She didn’t lie – but she hid the truth.

    A mentor of mine said that he had 3 rules in business – “Don’t Lie, Don’t Cheat, Don’t Steal.”

    He also said, “If there’s no justice in this life, there’s justice in the next.”

    Carla is going to have to satisfy herself with that. And now meet the competition head on…

    – J.

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