Competitors Build on Collaboration

Business competitors find unexpected value in open collaborative environment

by RaeAnne Marsh

“I’ve definitely realized that there is more than enough business to go around,” says Dallin Harris, founder and president of Skyhook Interactive, discussing an “agency forum” group he takes part in within a larger business owners’ organization. It’s an unexpected assembly.

Explains Harris, “In normal EO [Entrepreneurs’ Organization] forums, we try to stay away from our competitors, so as not to share trade secrets. But Adam Arkfeld at ParaCore flipped that whole concept on its head when he asked, ‘Hey, we all believe in this EO community experience. Why don’t we try getting together as competitors, with the belief that there is more to be gained by collaborating than there is to lose?’”

Arkfeld says he initially joined EO to help him grow his business faster, and expected to realize that through training, tactics and learning strategies from different business owners that he could incorporate into his business. He discovered that, while that forum gave him the most benefit personally, it was from talking to other agency owners that he gained more tactical benefits he could use in his business. “At events, I found myself talking to agency owners about different problems I was running into — hiring, compensation, HR, pricing, anything and everything in between. I found that other owners were having similar problems and our conversations were really impactful, although they were limited in time. The agency owners in EO are impressive, so I thought if I could get everyone in the room we’d probably learn a lot from one another and be able to take strategies back to the office to help our businesses. I emailed all the agency owners in EO, had positive feedback, and we started meeting shortly thereafter.”

While all respondents to this article expressed similar reasons for joining EO, benefitting from openly sharing best practices within their industry has taken it to a higher level. “It’s never been an issue that many of us directly compete against each other,” says Serendipit co-founder Melissa DiGianfilippo.

In fact, DiGianfilippo continues, “It has helped me understand better some of the core strengths that some of my fellow agency owners have so that when something isn’t a great fit for Serendipit, I can refer that lead to an agency who better fits that need. It’s also made me feel validation in many of our practices at Serendipit by seeing how other agencies price services, pay employees and more.

“This has been one of the most valuable parts of joining the group!” she continues. “We all have experienced some interesting employee issues, from making bad hires that could potentially lead to legal issues, to hiring the right person for a totally wrong position, to what to pay, to bonus structures; there are so many things that come up when you own a business and you have employees. Having a safe place to air these challenges without judgment and with real insight into experiences that my fellow agency owners have gone through has been such a tremendous relief. We made a really bad hire at Serendipit a few years ago for a very senior-level position and, at the time, we felt like were alone on an island dealing with the drama that unfolded once we realized this person wasn’t a great hire. Now I have, basically, a mini-board of directors to talk with when things like this come up, and I can share my experiences when others go through similar situations.”

Says Meltmedia CEO and partner Justin Grossman, “Many of us are dealing with similar business challenges and it made sense to take an industry lens to them. While in the greater EO organization you might learn specific things to running a business, not everyone can share experiences that are so direct to our industry. For example, sharing the types of software we use, what are the right pay rates for specific types of talent, et cetera. Those solves can be very unique with an industry, and having insight into what others have tried and what has worked or not is very valuable.”

Notes Harris, “It’s interesting to hear about the services my competitors are offering, and whether those service areas are growing or shrinking. It helps me create a more holistic view of what customers are looking for, and where the trend is headed.”

“This group provides perspective, above all else,” says Synapse Studios principal Chris Cardinal. “It’s really difficult to run a business in a vacuum, and having others validate concepts through their experiences is the most valuable thing of all. If we see a strategy, approach, culture, process, technique, piece of software or something along those lines working well for someone in the group, it’s something worth seriously considering bringing home to our own businesses.” He believes that, addition to giving context so they aren’t “flying blind,” it helps illuminate the true size of the market and the nature of competition here, and helps the agencies further define their respective focus.

“I think the key here is understanding the different parts of the market from the group,” Grossman explains. “This is a large and dynamic market; we can’t all know everything. Being able to see what is happening in different segments is very valuable. It also helps to be able to quickly reach out to others who are experts in their area to help solve a client issue or make an introduction.”

Expressing a view shared by the others, Veronique James, CEO of The James Agency, says, “All of the agencies in the Valley are incredible at what they do, and it seems they all specialize in very specific verticals and are experts within those lanes. I love that, as peer leaders even outside of EO, we can often call on each other for employee advice or support.”

Observing that the market is pretty big and there is still a fair amount of difference to set the firms apart from each other, Cardinal says his firm, for instance, focuses primarily on custom mobile and web apps, whereas many of the other firms are more marketing focused. “This,” he notes, “provides me a trusted network of firms I can refer work to when there’s a request we can’t fulfill.”

Harris, while respecting the policy of confidentiality regarding what is discussed at their meetings, shares, “I love hearing about how Serendipit does student housing, or how Meltmedia does pharma, or how Synapse does government. It makes me realize that there are a lot of other industries out there beyond the ones I’m focused on who might also need the services I provide. Also, it’s cool to see how different companies put a totally different spin on similar services. So, for example, Colling Media does websites, too, but they’re a lot more focused on supporting paid media campaigns, as opposed to mine, which are more focused on functionality. So when I’ve had opportunity to refer business, I’m able to send it to a company that not only offers the service my referral is looking for, but who offers it in a way I know they’ll enjoy and benefit from.”

Acknowledging, “Yes, we all have conflicts or areas of specialty,” David Anderson, founder of Off Madison Ave and CEO of LighthousePE, adds, “If we can pass someone who is not a good fit for one of us to another company, that is helpful to all of us.

“We learn from each other. We share best practices. You learn quickly that there are very few ‘secret sauces’ to success and that sharing makes us all better,” Anderson says. “You also learn that if we are all succeeding, it is good for the market in total. If others see the value of what our services can do, more business opportunities will come to all of us.”

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