Seth Godin has a post on his blog about competition that is intriguing, but one I feel isn’t complete. His premise seems to assume that “competition” simply means you reacting to what your competitors are doing. The assumption is that you are allowing your competition to either lead you (because they are in front) or force you in directions of their choosing (because they are beside or behind you). While I agree with Seth that self-motivation is important, reacting to your competitors isn’t just about blindly aping their actions. It’s looking at your competitors (ahead, beside or behind you), taking a moment to see what they are doing, and then deciding for yourself if imitation makes sense, or looking for opportunities that give you an advantage. I do agree that, if you are letting your competitors dictate your actions without any real thought you your part, then you are going to be in trouble. Being a copy-cat can sometimes work in the short-term (witness the plethora of knock-off clothes, car parts, etc in the world), but it isn’t much of a plan for long-term survival, let alone a plan to grow and thrive.
The title of Seth’s post is “Run Your Own Race”. I would amend that a little: Run Your Own Race As Much As You Can. There are times where there are rules, written or otherwise, where breaking them is catastrophic. There’s nothing like jail time to put a damper on your entrepreneurial visions. For “rules” written by the current leaders in whatever you are doing, you have to pick and choose the rules you want to break, and find the most effective way of breaking (or even just bending) them. It’s breaking those rules that can give you a leg up, but it was the competitive environment, and those unwritten rules, that made your opportunity possible. Beware, though: you may think you can break some rules, and you may find that those rules aren’t written by your competitors, but by your customers. There is fine line between “quirky” and “horribly unacceptable”. Just ask the team that designed the Pontiac Aztek. The difference between “iconoclast” and “nutbar” isn’t always easy to define, but people know it when they see.
Certainly, run your own race, but recognize that you may find some options limited from time to time. Sometimes the only way to succeed is to imitate your competitors, if only for a short period of time. But remember that competitors will show you weaknesses in themselves and opportunities for you to succeed. Keeping tabs on them means you can take advantage of mistakes, and work them to your advantage. Self-motivation is good, and it is important, but you aren’t out there alone: there are others playing the same game as you, and they can’t be ignored. But they shouldn’t be slavishly imitated either.