This comment is the flip side of making “friends” online. How can you “network” when you feel threatened?
The first way I like to combat this is logic. Now, I realize that logic is not always the most effective technique, but I always want to check the claims of my lizard brain. If my brain is saying, “No! Don’t talk to them! They’re your competitors!” I want to know: Does this statement have merit?
As I’ve mentioned before, the great thing about online business is that it can allow for near-infinite niching. It also means that the customers are typically quite discerning. They’re not usually making value judgements about which brand is better than another. But they are making value judgments about what brand they LIKE better.
But maybe that nuance doesn’t make you feel better.
So instead, let’s look at whether or not you and this other person are in direct competition for the spending money of your potential customers. Let me give you a few examples.
As a purveyor of business advice, I am targeting online business owners. In terms of dollars, I’m in competition less with other coaches than I am with people making premium plugins and people selling hosting or mailing list software or relationship management software. All those people are going to get money out of my target audience long before I will, in the same way that you will make sure your bills are paid before you make an appointment with the orthodontist.
There are other business coaches out there, but I don’t consider any of them to be my direct competition. Why? Because we do different things for different people. Not only are people focussed on different aspects of business problem-solving, they’re focussed on different kinds of people. Emilie Wapnick, for instance, coaches people in to how to merge their interests into a single business. That’s very early-stage business advice, and she also gets a lot of people in their 20s.
I, on the other hand, generally deal with established businesses. If you don’t have something for sale, it’s too early to ask for my help. I also tend to work with people in their 30s and 40s. So I don’t ever feel like I am in direct competition with anyone else. There’s a Venn diagram of the problems I solve and the people I work with, but even if one of the circles overlaps with someone else, our sweet spots don’t overlap.
Although peripherally we could be said to be competing for the same clients, the clients we most want to work with are going to self-select for us. And since the number of clients on the internet could be said to be functionally infinite for a micro-business, we can both continue to pursue our “sweet spot” clients, and allow the peripherals to do what they like with their money.
2. Mona the Web Dev
Mona probably has a fairly specialized skillset, but probably not so special literally no one could do what she does. However, even amongst SQL programmers, there are projects that you’d rather do, or rather not do.
For web developers, the amount of work available is also functionally infinite. The trick is to find work you want to do, for people you don’t want to strangle, for a price that will let you retire some day. But at least you don’t have to worry about the work drying up.
I would argue that freelancers are the most in need of networking with their peers. Why? Because people who have work are in direct contact with people who need work done. This increases the chances of them putting you in touch with people who need what you do. (And vice versa, of course.)
In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to getting out networking beyond the opportunity to find more work:
- It raises your visibility (and hence, respect, in the community)
- You get a good sense of your peers and who you would work well with
- You develop the contacts to subcontract your work when you get too much, or
- You can pass off any projects you don’t want to do to someone you know will like them and this makes you look smart to your original contact and generous to your colleague
- People will do the same for you, increasing your ability to work on projects you like.
Again, it’s rare that your “sweet spot” is going to match up with anyone else’s sweet spot, but by cooperating, everyone gets more work in their sweet spots.
3. Artists and Creatives
I find that most artists are able to network without feeling (too) much jealousy. It can be hard when someone else seems to be doing better than you are, but every artist understands intuitively that when people fall in love with a piece, it’s not because of a rational comparison of the merits. It’s because they love the piece. That makes it impossible for artists to really be in direct competition, because people love what they love, and you can’t steal the love that a customer has for another artist’s work. Even competing on price doesn’t really work. All other things being equal, if you love two pieces, you might buy the cheaper one. But then again, you might not. Love is funny that way.
Creatives, though. That’s a lot more of an issue.
I think it’s because “creatives” like designers and commercial artists tend to work with a less discerning bunch than the ‘art’ artists (forgive the clunkiness, but if there’s a better way to express the difference, I haven’t found it.) They work for businesses and business-people, so the work they’re buying is less about the ‘love’ of the product, and more about whether it matches the brand or converts well.
In an environment like that, where the customers can have differing ideas of merit, aren’t reliably swayed by ‘love’ and may be price conscious, it is much less meritocratic. It might be easier to make a living, if for instance, you’re able to demonstrate your impact on the bottom line (copywriters vs novelists) but it can also be much more difficult (logo designers vs cartoonists).
Nevertheless, I would argue that you should still make a point of making friends, not just for the same reasons that Mona does, but also because it can provide you with valuable market information.
It’s all too easy for “creatives” to lack confidence and price themselves at the bottom of the barrel. Of course, everyone has to start somewhere, but collectively, you all do better when you’re comparing market rates and impacts. Not only do you gain access to a wealth of experience and knowledge that would take you several lifetimes to accumulate yourself, you’re also going to improve your skills much faster than you would in a vacuum. Finally, a strong network will prevent clients from low-balling you on price. You’ll know exactly what your work is worth, no matter what they say, because you know six other commercial artists who charge the same.
In all of these cases, the benefits of networking are enormous. In very few situations are you actually going to be faced with someone who is a direct competitor. Generally, your ‘sweet spot’ is unique to you. That means there’s no competition for it. So go out and make friends, share information, and help people out. It really changes your whole mindset.