In comments to yesterday’s post, H. said (in part):
I suppose it’s one of the disadvantages of the old fashioned “guild” system where industry knowledge is hidden amongst those who are in the business already, with very little room for newcomers to enter. Who wants to train their competition?
I’ve wanted to write about this for awhile too but lacked an opening. I’ll open by saying I want to train my competition [Kind of. Sort of. There are ground rules based on reciprocity and context.] because consumers and industry are best served with a strong institutional knowledge base. At last glance, ours isn’t in the best shape. My first point is that competitor is used too frequently and colleague isn’t used nearly enough. Second, I’ll explain recent research on the nature of competition that motivates you to do your best. Namely envy versus admiration. But first, a discussion of semantics.
Colleague vs Competitor
Experienced designers avoid using the term competitor directly; saying “who I/you hang with” instead. That’s because no consumer wears one brand to the exclusion of all others anymore than people only listen to one musician, eat at one restaurant or shop at one store. I’ll grant there are exceptions but few visitors are in those categories to hold sway in the market. At best one entity competes for the same slot in the market based on a number of factors (often corporate policy over which they have little control) but not stylistically.
Beginning designers often describe respective market leaders as their competitors but this is rarely true. Using the term competitor is self-elevating; its use presumes you’re in a position to do some damage to the other when the truth is, you aspire to be in the same league. Nothing wrong with that but watch your phrasing. You don’t want to marginalize yourself.
[In the case of intellectual property, both piracy and trademark infringement are exceptions and substantive, competitive threats because one is posed to wage war over a facsimile of one’s self. Copies can be insulting or flattering. In the case of flagship brands, insulting because copies are often poor quality which can lessen the brand’s image in the marketplace. On the other hand, not all copies are bad; some can be flattering if the copy’s quality and price points were raised. It means the design merited a re-mix. I suggest picking it apart for lessons on how to do it better yourself next time. But I digress.]
I think the term colleague is much better; it is more sporting and imparts an atmosphere of warmth and reciprocity. Outward appearances may suggest otherwise but it’s really up to the given individuals to determine if they are colleagues or not. Of course it is presumptive of a new designer to describe her or himself as a colleague to big names but that’s fairly rare. It’s also inaccurate for a relative newcomer to describe given service providers as competitors because those described may consider themselves colleagues (many DEs have erroneously described my closest friends as my competitors; funny how we never knew that!). We each have our own specialized niche in the market which may not be obvious to anyone other than ourselves. I’ve rambled but it is good to aspire to become more collegial.
Envy vs Admiration:
Recent research, Envy is a stronger motivator than admiration, bears this out with careful caveats for our purposes. The study analyzed different kinds of envy and admiration according to framing techniques designed to elicit given responses. People who are primed with “effort is futile”, feel admiration for others and do not attempt to compete with them. Those primed with “effort pays off”, feel benign envy; they assume they can do it too thus becoming competitors. The last type was malicious envy which is triggered if the point of comparison was framed in such a way that success seemed undeserved. The latter also doesn’t inspire competition.
It’s very useful to use the performance of others as benchmarks for ourselves but we glean the best framing the more we know about the person, how hard they worked etc which inspires us to do the same. You only get there by being friendly with the person (becoming a colleague). If you’re truly friendly (feel benign envy) you don’t want to hurt anyone but you do want to compete. I think the opposite problem is more common though. Too many start ups are saddled with resentment envy. Resentment envy doesn’t inspire you to become unstuck; the tack may be to find ways to turn this around by admiring someone you resent. In other words, develop a relationship with them.
[Relationship doesn’t mean to suck someone else dry; there must be reciprocal give and take. Some entrepreneurs on the web are downright delusional; they think they’re doing you a favor by “providing a nurturing opportunity”. There’s no faster way to marginalize oneself than one woman who has written simplistic 100 word blog posts titled “things no one else in the garment industry will tell you” -when she knows darn well I do and in much greater detail -and then asked me how to grow her business.]
Indirectly the study shows it’s an imperative of personal and professional growth to develop collegial relations. Which returns me to my sort of contradiction to H’s comment that no one wants to train their competition. Considering the cost of training, if you train someone who then goes to the competition, I think it becomes a matter of lack of reciprocity, that one’s competitor is getting something to which they were not entitled (malicious envy) and at cost to one’s self. However, if we had a robust institutional knowledge base, then the costs of training would be much lower and limit our risks of investment and subsequent consideration to do more of it. Problem is, to develop a robust education base, everyone needs to kick in one way or another. Again, more reciprocity the lack of which causes resentment.
Here’s the truth of it: it is in the consumer’s best interest that we have strong institutional knowledge. It means products will be better and cost less. Painful as it is to admit, what is best for the consumer is also best for us. If we share a complex knowledge infrastructure, it becomes less a matter of perceived overwhelming advantages but can-do-ism (benign envy does inspire competition). The game is more fun, like watching finely trained athletes compete at the top of their game. Unfortunately, textile and apparel manufacturing respectively have always been dead last in employee training benchmarks.
I can’t tell any of you what to do, I can only lead by example. Toward that end I created the mechanisms by which you can create meaningful and reciprocal relationships with colleagues -or those with whom you aspire to be colleagues- and build an institutional knowledge base at the same time. “Díme con quien andas, y te diré quien eres” (tell me who you hang with and I’ll tell you who you are).
The blog itself was designed for its own purpose -namely public education. Obviously I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to train the competition -and in spite of its required sacrifices and costs, I do it every day. I know it looks easy but anyone who is half as thick skinned or stubborn as I am has a promising future.
[…and considering half my daily logins are from Very Large Brands, I think the Levis, GAPs, and Kellwoods of the world should kick in a bit of underwriting to support the education of their employees… Heck, I’d write entries just for them if they’d tell me what they wanted]