In business, unlike the NCAA, we experience the equivalent of March Madness every month of the year. Here’s the good news: competition only makes us better.
To continue with the sports analogy, for many years the four-minute mile was considered as fast as a person could possibly run. Like the speed of light, no one ever imagined actually going faster. Until Roger Bannister came along. In the early 1950s, Bannister was considered the fastest runner in the world. And while the Englishman repeatedly tried to break the four-minute-mile mark, he was continually thwarted. And on one occasion he actually lost to Yugoslavia's Andrija Otenhajmer who outpaced Bannister in a 1,500 meter race, which is about 100 meters shy of one mile. That constant competition, he would later say, helped drive him to run faster and faster. Then in 1954, Bannister finally did it: He broke the four-minute mile and set a new world record with a time of 3:59.04. Serious competition changed expectations, and thereafter people increasingly began to run at a speed that was once thought impossible.
The same thing can happen when businesses compete. When my brother and I took over a pool hall, which was our first real business out of high school, we knew our competition wasn’t just other pool halls, it was anywhere people could spend their time and money. That included movie theaters, bars and restaurants, as well as places to play basketball or other sports. To compete with these other forms of recreation, we designed our marketing materials to entice people away from them and into our place. We ran newspaper, magazine and directory ads right next to event and entertainment ads to give people a clear choice and help them keep us in mind as one of their many entertainment options.
As a young entrepreneur, it may be difficult to see the advantages of competition, but it’s what keeps you from getting lazy. Whether you’re competing for customers with the guy down the street, trying to come in first place at a business-plan competition, or vying for venture-capital dollars, you need to demonstrate that you're the best, or you may end up like the University of Nevada-Las Vegas's men's basketball team -- that is, good but gone.
Here's how to one up your competitors:
Consider your competition. With the pool hall, we knew our real competition was anyone who wanted people’s time and money. Don’t think too narrowly. If you produce cookies, your competitors are bakeries, other cookie manufacturers, the Girl Scouts and every other dessert maker. The broader your definition of competition, the more likely you are to create a company with multiple competitive advantages.
Perfect your product. Have you polished your concept? A good idea is great, but is it really the best version you can present? Product attributes such as ease of use, size, weight, convenience, reliability, sturdiness, color, shape, features and speed can make a difference to customers. Competitors with products that have similar characteristics are a great source for ideas you can use to improve your own.
Shine your service. A “baker’s dozen” is often described as a competitive advantage some bakeries used to encourage customers to choose them over the competition. What sweetener can you offer potential customers that will help you outshine other companies? Special offers, coupons, free shipping, convenient locations, same-day delivery, reduced rates after 4 p.m., open until 11 p.m., 24/7 availability to answer questions. What is your competition doing and what can you do to attract attention to your approach to service?
Buff your brand. You’re not just selling good ideas. You’re selling your whole company. From social media to signage, make sure your brand sparkles brighter than others in your industry. It’s not enough to be better than the competition, you have to look better, sound better, act better and stand out from the others.
Cater to customers. What can you do to keep your customer base loyal, excited and growing? When they start looking for the next big thing, make sure you have something to offer them. Keep them committed with insider opportunities and better features and options. If you keep improving your approach, your competitors will be too busy trying to keep up with you to develop their own next big thing.
Beware of backsliding. If you aren’t constantly working to improve your product, service, brand and customer connections, you will start slipping. After all, your competitors are aiming for you too.
Corrections & Amplifications: Roger Bannister ran against Yugoslavia's Andrija Otenhajmer in a 1,500 meter race. And he broke the four-minute-mile mark in 1954. A previous version of this story misstated these events.
Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.