The Competitor

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There is a small slip of paper I keep taped to the desk beside my computer. It contains a lot of sayings, ideas and quotes that I have read or heard over the years.

March 04, 2000

There is a small slip of paper I keep taped to the desk beside my computer. It contains a lot of sayings, ideas and quotes that I have read or heard over the years. All resonated with me at the time and have continued to provide inspiration when I’ve needed it most. A few of my favorites:
"It’s not the big companies that eat the small companies. It’s the fast companies that eat the slow."
"There are only three players in every business in every market--number 1, number two and all the rest are suck wind."
"You have the right to remain silent, so shut up."

The last is my not-so-subtle reminder to myself to listen more than I talk. I’ve found days go more smoothly and I know more
when each is over if I follow that simple rule. That it came from one of PB’s editors makes it all the more significant. The rest of these little gems are from newspaper articles, books, and seminar notes--all the usual places.

I added one recently from a Wall Street Journal interview. In this article Charles Lax, general partner in a billion-dollar venture capital fund that holds a major stake in Internet giants like Yahoo, explains that he doesn’t hesitate to do business with his archrivals, companies like America Online and AltaVista:

"My only competition is with myself," he says.
While the entire article was interesting that quote stopped me cold. It was one of those light bulb moments when what was murky suddenly becomes clear. He said so simply what we all know, but few practice: Competition isn’t the company down the street, the big builder moving into town or the second bidder on a custom home project. The biggest competitor each of us must overcome is the face in the mirror and the limits we set on what we can accomplish.

I was thinking about limits--self-imposed and otherwise--as I edited this month’s copy from Scott Sedam and Ed Caldeira. That both of these quality gurus drew on the auto industry as an example and an analogy for our industry today is intriguing and somewhat frightening. Automakers believed their own PR--that Americans wanted big cars from domestic manufacturers. The Big Three’s refusal to listen to customers, to consider more efficient manufacturing methods, or to partner with vendors was dangerous and shortsighted. But those things coupled with their unwavering belief that they--and only they--determined their fate is what pushed an industry to the financial brink.

That the automakers are again on solid financial ground and delivering products that appeal to buyers and compete with the once untouchable foreign producers is, as Scott says, astounding.

To effect this kind of dramatic change, managers at Ford, Chrysler and GM first had to convince themselves that a new way to manufacture and deliver cars was possible. They had to believe there were benefits to partnering with companies once thought of as competitors, to listening to suggestions from labor, to retooling its purchasing model or to embracing new technology.

Certainly enough voices from outside the sector had been screaming these same things for months, years and in at least one case, decades. But what this auto industry example teaches is simple: Change doesn’t happen from the outside. Real, productive change is internal. It’s as Mr. Lax says--each of us is our own toughest competitor. Overcoming our learning about the way to do our jobs, manage our companies and plan for the future is difficult. There is security in doing what has worked before, in following the footsteps of others in the market.

Or is there? Certainly, Detroit thought so but buyers didn’t. Is this to be the fate of our industry as well? Will we keep developing land, designing houses, building and selling homes, and managing after-the-sale service the way we always have? Do we know enough about what consumers want today to deliver the new home--and home buying experience--that will amaze, instead of simply satisfy?

These answers won’t come easily and they won’t come from anyone but you.

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