You can learn a lot from your competition.
But creating a networking relationship still seems a little far-fetched for the typical small business owner, even though many competitors are more than willing to trade notes if they are treated respectfully.
Although not everyone who competes with your business will be interested in networking opportunities, friendly competitors can create mutually beneficial networking relationships.
Here's how to do it in a way that makes sense and protects both your interests:
- Meet on Neutral Ground. It's a good idea to meet on neutral ground, especially during the early stages of your networking relationships. A chance encounter at a tradeshow or Chamber of Commerce event is less likely to raise a friendly competitor's radar than a random phone call inviting him to swing by your office for an information exchange.
- Share Experiences. Only expect to get as much information about your competitor's business as you are willing to share about yours. You have to go into the networking relationship prepared to carry your share of the conversation, but focus on sharing your experiences as a business owner rather than giving away any facts or figures related to your business.
- Don't Share Too Much. No matter how close your relationship becomes, there are certain things that just aren't appropriate to share with a friendly competitor. Information about your employees, strategic planning details, market positioning initiatives – this kind of information is too tempting to pass up and sooner or later your new networking partner will use it to his advantage.
- Consider Limited Collaborations. From time to time, a networking relationship with a competitor can lead to limited collaborations that make sense for both parties. For example, a joint advertising campaign probably wouldn't be productive, while teaming up to nail down a lower price from a shared vendor might.
- Explore Strengths & Opportunities. Your competitor likely has a different set of strengths than you do. By exploring one another's strong points you can stumble into collaborative arrangements that give you both an advantage over the rest of the field.