One deadly obsession

Written by Brian Scudamore

Let me bend your ear and tell you the story of Mike McKee. I hired Mike in 1993, back when my company was called The Rubbish Boys. He was my top driver. He stayed with me for two years and became a great friend, both in and out of the business. Then I received a phone call from Mike. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. “I’m going into competition against you.” My heart stopped. How could he do this to me? When I hung up the phone, I started an immediate plan to take his new business — Trashbusters — down.

The war on Trashbusters represents an important chapter in the history of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, which will turn 17 on March 18. (I’m only 35 now, so I’ve been running my company almost half my life and every day of my adult life. Wow!) Although I’m a big “vision” guy with a really forward-looking mindset, I believe one way to reach a better future is by reflecting on the past — which is why I’ve been thinking about my intense effort to stop Mike and Trashbusters.

Was I successful? Heck, no. But Mike sure was. In fact, I almost lost control of my business by becoming preoccupied with someone else’s. My lesson to share: don’t obsess over the competition; it will weaken your focus and your company.

Over the next two years, I tried everything ethical in my power to stop Mike’s firm from growing. I made sure our welder didn’t build a dumping box for him, but Mike had his trucks built elsewhere. When a friend at the local telco told me there was an order for 273-HAUL, which I felt was too close to our 738-JUNK number, I called Trashbusters and threatened to sue. It cancelled the order, but had marketed the Trashbusters name so well that customers didn’t need to know its catchy phone number. I spent money trying to sue my ex-employee, while Mike spent his money on marketing. I burned a lot of time persuading the two dumps I’d contracted not to serve Trashbusters, but they relented after a year. Meantime, Mike found other dumps and built relationships with property managers.

Following my example, even my staff became obsessed with curbing the competition rather than building our customer base. My team didn’t like the Trashbusters signs that seemed to be on every telephone pole in Vancouver; they felt that if you saw more Trashbusters signs than you saw of ours, then we were losing the battle. We were losing the battle. So rather than trying to outmarket the competition, our drivers were removing Trashbusters’ signs. Too bad Mike had hired a team to erect his signs faster than we could take them down.

My obsession did nothing more than reduce my level of focus. I tried to slow their flywheel momentum, but the effect was the opposite: my flywheel slowed while theirs sped up. Our growth rate decreased while theirs increased. By 1997, just two years after Trashbusters launched, we were operating in two cities and they were in four. They were winning! It drove me crazy!

This self-destructive tide didn’t turn till Sept. 17, 1998. I remember the day perfectly. I was sitting on the dock of my parents’ cottage creating my “Painted Picture” — a two-page document describing what my company would look, feel and act like five years down the road. The exercise led to this epiphany: I needed to solidify my commitment to focusing on my business and no one else’s — including Mike’s. Over the next year, we adopted a franchising model and stuck with it. We stopped worrying about the competition and started worrying about how we were going to harness first-mover advantage, how we were going to get our brand across North America quickly. We saw very early results, and outgrew Trashbusters within 12 months.

I think Trashbusters has, ironically, lost its focus over the years; it started obsessing over the competition — namely, us. I watched it modify the look of its company and change its already catchy name to a phone number similar in style to 1-800-GOT-JUNK? I watched it try to shift from a corporate model to a franchising model. It had lost the No. 1 position and started to obsess over what we were doing rather than build on the strengths that it already had.

It’s funny how things change and how we learn. Eleven years after the launch of Trashbusters, I am often heard saying, “We need a national competitor.” We do. I mean it with utmost sincerity. Rather than obsess over the competition, I’ve now learned to welcome it and the important role it plays. Mike and I both know that neither of us would be where we are today if it weren’t for each other’s businesses. In our industry, where our biggest challenge is creating awareness not only of our brands but of the existence of junk-removal services, who better to help than the competition? I don’t believe McDonald’s would be where it is today, 50 years after it started, if it weren’t for competing brands such as Wendy’s, A&W, In-N-Out Burger and Jack in the Box all promoting fast food as a dining option.

A minute wasted worrying about the competition is just that — a minute wasted, a minute taken away from adding momentum to your own flywheel. There will always be a Coke and a Pepsi, an Air Canada and a WestJet, a Home Depot and a Rona. Let your No. 2 come. If your strategy is to get in its way rather than build your lead, then you only risk losing ground. Focus on your business, and it will grow.

© 2006 Brian Scudamore

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com