Building Business Alliances With Competitors
Career Path: How partnering with the opposition can become a win-win situation.
Before I met Deidre King of Fitness Communications, I didn’t know any other fitness pros who offered writing and editing services specifically for the fitness industry, as I do. When I found out that Deidre’s services were similar to mine, I weighed my options: I could closely guard my clients, making futile attempts at preventing others from learning about my competitor, or I could approach Deidre about forming a mutually beneficial professional alliance. I went with the latter choice, which turned out to be an instant success for both of us. (Of course, I wouldn’t mention my competition in this article if my business philosophy was in line with the first option!)
Allying with a competitor fosters professional growth and learning. It spreads abundance in the fitness industry—and it helps clients. Being able to refer clients and prospects to another, similar service-provider is far more rewarding than just turning them away because of, say, a fully booked schedule.
This article is intended to get you thinking about how to learn and profit from your business contenders instead of battling against them. Note that seeking out a professional ally is different from creating a legal partnership, which is a closer, more official arrangement. Turning a direct competitor into an ally might involve sending clients or prospects to your competitor under certain situations. Or it might mean promoting and selling products made by a company that by all accounts should be your rival.
Sound too idealistic for a fitness marketplace that’s getting more saturated with similar services and products? The reality is, this type of climate makes professional alliances even more necessary and fruitful! However, allying with competitors isn’t for everyone. You must be intuitive, creative and willing to take risks. Read why this business strategy pays off extremely well for three fitness professionals, and how you can reap similar rewards.
What’s the advantage to turning your competitors into business allies?
Peter Twist: Some companies exhaust considerable time and resources protecting their proprietary property. Their goal is to hide trade secrets from competition. At Twist Conditioning, we believe that helping our competitors is indeed good for the industry. If the industry grows, our piece of it will grow. This is an extension of a team-first attitude, which always, collectively, produces superior long-term results versus the win-at-all-costs, me-me-me approach.
Matt Shuebrook: It’s powerful when brains connect on the same wavelength. Fitness professionals don’t need to share everything with each other, just enough to move forward.
As a general rule, how have you made allying with competitors work for you?
Twist: I have essentially built my business by helping my competitors and, as a byproduct, that has helped build specialized areas in the industry. Building a network of trainers who can cross-refer to each other feeds everyone’s business. Many people view selling a competing company’s product for them as lining the competitor’s pockets. We view it as an opportunity to share in the revenue benefits of the sales volume. If our competitor is healthy, they will advertise more, which helps create more awareness for the industry overall.
Shuebrook: A trainer (who later became a business ally) and I first worked together at the local JCC. In my mind, we were competitors. I wanted every potential client. However, the other trainer looked at me as someone he wanted to bond with. He was in his 50s, and I was only 18 at the time, so my mindset wasn’t where his was. But we grew to be friends, and he first introduced me to the Internet.
When he mentioned the idea of paying a company a few hundred bucks a month for a website, I laughed and called him a fool. But my mindset changed when I saw that this trainer had a huge list of in-home clients. He took the time to share with me the art of advertising personal training services online. The Internet changed my life, so I was dearly grateful to this other trainer. We eventually formed a training studio together.
What qualities do you look for when creating an alliance with another business?
Jim Labadie: What qualities do you look for in a best friend? Seriously. Not that a business ally needs to become your best friend, but you had better trust [your allies] that much. So look at reputation. What kind of reputation do they have? What do their customers say about them? What are their strengths? Weaknesses?
Twist: As a general rule, we look for uniqueness or strengths that we need. Rather than hiring additional staff and learning by trial and error to replicate a competitor’s uniqueness or strengths, we see it as more effective to work with that competitor. To do that, we must provide value and benefits that equal or exceed what our competitor will provide to us.
How do you determine whether forming an alliance with a competitor would do more harm than good?
Twist: We assess the competition’s reputation in the industry, the quality of their service and business culture, and if the principals are decent people. If they do not fit our requirements, no matter how lucrative the alliance might be, we drop it. In any affiliation, you are exposing your reputation by extending your association to another fitness professional or company. If [the people] are not pleasant to deal with, move on and enjoy your day.
Shuebrook: If you are not careful, you could end up in a business relationship similar to an unhappy marriage. In any alliance there must be some sacrifice and also perks on both sides. Both parties should enhance each other with their strengths, not bring each other down by exploiting each other’s weaknesses.
Labadie: Sometimes you’re so anxious to work with a business you feel could help yours grow [that] you make a deal that’s really not in your best interest. Always go with your gut. If you get a bad feeling about something, listen to your instinct and walk away. I realize this is obvious to most, but sometimes when the promise of a windfall of cash is staring you in the face, you may be tempted to do the wrong thing.
What’s the best way to ensure a prosperous and lasting relationship with a competitor-turned-ally?
Labadie: You have to realize that you need them more than they need you. For example, if someone’s customer database is 10 times the size of yours, and you want access to it, it’s important that you bring a lot of value to the table. Don’t expect a competitor to just do whatever you ask because you think it’s a good idea. Start small. Get to know your competitor and let the relationship grow. You want to let them know how you will help them and make their lives easier. How will you make them look good in front of their prospects and customers?
Don’t leave things to chance. If you don’t have specific roles to play and something important falls through the cracks, neither party is going to be happy. Be very specific as to any and every expectation and responsibility.
Twist: You need to make sure your ally follows the rules of the agreement you both took time to pen together and that the obligations you agreed to are exchanged equally. If you follow through on your deliverables but they do not, you need to re-address the agreement and allow a cure period for them to pull up their socks. Those who exceed your expectations and produce quality work with a positive attitude turn out to be not so much competitors as true allies in the fitness industry.
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Sidebar: Our Sources
- Jim Labadie, fitness entrepreneur and consultant based in Jupiter, Florida; www.trainandgrowrich.com
- Matt Shuebrook, personal trainer and owner of Real Fitness Results in Philadelphia; www.realfitnessresults.com
- Peter Twist, president and chief executive officer of Twist Conditioning Inc., a North Vancouver, British Columbia– based training company that specializes in performance enhancement through sport-specific conditioning; www.sportconditioning.ca
Sidebar: Case Study: Allying With a Competitor
Are you considering the possibility of forming a professional alliance with a personal trainer in your area, but you’re worried about revealing too many trade secrets or losing clients to the other trainer? Here’s a case study to help illustrate how an alliance with a competitor might work:
At a glance, Trainer Joe and Trainer Jane look like fierce competitors. They own prospering fitness studios just blocks apart. However, Jane refers many of her sports-conditioning clients to Joe, who specializes in this market. In return, Joe sends his pregnant clients to the prenatal yoga classes at Jane’s studio.
Could some of Joe’s prenatal clients eventually hire Jane instead of Joe for personal training? Sure. But Joe and Jane aren’t interested in quibbling over a few clients—they’ve laid out the ground rules of their alliance in writing so that each party knows the boundaries and expectations. What matters to them is the big picture: they want a professional alliance that allows them to expertly serve a larger pool of clients in their community while bringing more cash flow to both of them.
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