How to avoid the competitor comparison trap

Dec 31, 2018

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While talking to a client recently, I was reminded of how things are rarely as they seem. My client, a graphic design studio owner who I’ll call Amanda, was telling me how she felt inadequate – that she wasn’t doing enough and didn’t feel like she had it all together.

We all feel this from time to time, so it wasn’t surprising to hear it from this woman who has a lot together and is asking the right questions about the future of her business.

I tried to be supportive and reassuring while she told me about what she struggled with. That is until Amanda started comparing herself to a competitor who she felt was “doing everything right” and “had it all figured out.”

Whoa. “Stop right there,” I said. “What makes you think that she has it all figured out?”

Amanda told me how this competitor started her business around the same time that Amanda started hers, so she’d been checking in on her progress every once in a while. And based on the competitor’s website, content, and appearances, Amanda was convinced that the competitor is immensely profitable and very sure of what she was doing.

Perhaps those assumptions are correct. But from my experience, they rarely are.

Fake it ‘til you make it

Even when I owned a full-service marketing firm, we were faking it until we made it in several areas on any given day. Yes, we had expertise, and we knew what we were doing in the core areas of our business. But as we experimented with new services and markets, we often learned and figured things out as we went.

There is nothing wrong with this. As long as we know more than our clients and can genuinely add value when engaging with them, it’s ok – and sometimes essential – for us to be willing to experiment. The nature of marketing, digital communications, design, etc. is that it’s continually changing. Anyone who tells you they know everything or is an expert in most things is lying for this reason alone.

Don’t be so quick to assume

When I was running my last company, my business partner and I reached out to the owner of a peer agency who we admired greatly. Let’s call him Mike. Mike’s agency did a lot of things very well, but they seemed to have a particular knack for hiring and retaining employees, so we asked to pick the agency owner’s brain about what worked for him. He generously shared a lot of information about how he finds, develops, and incentivizes his staff.

One of the things that I recall most vividly about that conversation has nothing to do with the topic of the call.

As we began speaking, we told Mike how we enjoyed the resources and content his agency shared, and how much we admired how he was doing so well and seemed to have it all figured out.

He stopped us immediately, saying, “It’s reassuring to hear that because it’s a struggle every day. It took a long time to figure out our focus and I’m still unsure of it.”

We were shocked

He went on to say that it had taken a few years to settle into their focus and that he was only then starting to see revenue reflect the fruits of that labor and investment.

This wasn’t the first or only time that I assumed something about a competitor or peer only to find out that their branding and marketing were more aspirational than reflective of current reality. In my work as a strategic planner, brand architect, and marketer, I also see this on the client side.

Let’s start projecting reality

A lot of us do an excellent job of projecting what we want people to see. We need to project expertise, confidence, focus, planning.

But it’s a journey for every business.

I’ve been thinking about how, as people who do marketing communications for a living, we do each other a disservice by projecting that we have it all together all of the time. Perhaps all entrepreneurs do.

Sure, our clients and customers need to feel that they’re buying expertise. And if you’re faking everything all of the time, you shouldn’t be in this business.

But if you are truly adding value while simultaneously constantly learning and struggling with how best to focus and position your work, you’re not alone.

Stop obsessing. Start reaching out.

So, how can we learn from each other as we navigate the same waters?

I recommended that Amanda befriend the competitor. Ask to have a call or coffee with her. See if she’s interested in talking every few months, or whether she wants an accountability partner.

These are some strategies that have worked for me and formed strong partnerships that not only provided me tremendous insight and perspective but also allowed me to share my knowledge and insight to help others.

There’s enough work to go around.

How do you find the middle ground? We need to project expertise to our perspective (and current) clients. But in doing so, do we create a bar that is just too high?

Anne Boyle is an independent strategy and marketing consultant who helps marketing agencies, graphic designers, and other creative communicators expand their capacity to win better business with clients committed to sustainability and social good. Agencies work with her to add to their capabilities Anne’s decades of experience in strategy, branding, marketing research and marketing planning, campaign development, and content creation. Read more articles and learn more about what Anne can do for you at