Collaboration over competition: how small businesses are working together in 2021

  1. Melissa Tredinnick

    Melissa Tredinnick Contributor

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    During tough economic times, you might think that running a business would turn into a ruthless battle for survival. But there’s a growing movement among businesses that have chosen to team up instead.

    The idea of businesses working together, even if they offer the same or similar products, is nothing new. In their 1996 book Co-opetition, Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger found that increasing numbers of rival businesses, particularly in digital industries, were partnering up to further their own goals and grow their industry as a whole. 

    Research has also found that collaborative competition could help businesses to reduce costs, boost innovation, and gain access to resources they didn’t have before.

    More recently, however, the decision to collaborate has become more than a strategy to achieve higher profits. In many cases, it’s a way to join forces with people who share both your personal and business goals – whether that’s about building a community, helping other small businesses, or promoting sustainability.

    “To me it just makes sense, and I wouldn't think of doing my business any other way,” said Colline Watts, owner of Berkshire-based catering company Colline’s Kitchen.

    “It is an opportunity to learn from others, be inspired and share contacts and ideas in a way that can benefit all parties involved. I also think it’s a way of keeping local businesses and customers together.”

    Since starting her company in 2019, Colline said she wanted to put collaboration at its core, using local suppliers and working with other businesses.

    She regularly promotes the work of other caterers, venues, shops and more on her Instagram page, using the hashtag #CollaborationOverCompetition.

    This approach has, if anything, become more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under social restrictions, many business owners have been forced to find innovative new ways to keep running, and for some, collaboration has been key.

    “We are living in times of uncertainty and that's how we can be there for each other,” Colline explained. “A pub that doesn't serve food, for example, could look to collaborate with local food caterers to provide a food pop-up so they are able to open within the COVID rules.”

    That sense of community spirit – of being there for each other during difficult times – has been one of the defining features of the public response to the pandemic. 

    More people are choosing to shop locally, community support groups have sprung up across the country, and there’s a greater awareness of the way people’s mental health and wellbeing have been affected.

    Local and small-scale collaborations also tend to go hand-in-hand with sustainability and ethical aims: instead of buying from the cheapest supplier you can find online, you might opt for the smaller, local one. 

    In some cases, that might make your product more expensive as you forgo the benefits of economies of scale, but it also tends to mean a lower carbon footprint and a better public image.

    As business strategist and consultant Chelsea Cox pointed out, collaboration can be cost-effective in other ways:

    “With marketing budgets generally on the smaller side, collaboration can fill this gap for small businesses,” she said. “It can provide visibility, awareness and interest from a whole new audience while expanding networks and recommendations. 

    “We rise by lifting others, and this is absolutely true in business just as it is in life.”

    She adds that the increased collaboration we’re seeing as a result of the pandemic is just as true for larger businesses as it is for smaller ones. 

    “COVID-19, in my opinion, has enhanced the way businesses of all sizes see each other,” added Chelsea. “They now see a camaraderie that perhaps wasn't there before, and I see a lot more brand and business partnerships coming together over the next few years.”

    Chelsea recently led a digital event for Reebok Europe, for example, in which the company partnered with KIND Snacks to raise money for suicide prevention charity CALM.

    Various other partnerships between major brands have taken place over the past year, with even the likes of Apple and Google joining forces to develop contact-tracing technology.

    And, of course, the joint development of a COVID-19 vaccine between Pfizer and BioNTech was one of the most notable recent examples of ‘co-opetition’ between large companies. 

    Chelsea now hopes large brands will use their platforms to support smaller businesses that have struggled over the past 12 months, pointing out Burger King’s recent Instagram campaign as an example to follow. 

    Since mid-December, the fast food giant’s UK Instagram account stopped sharing images of its own products, instead dedicating the space to promoting independent restaurants.

    Burger King UK posted an update to Instagram and Twitter on 14 December 2020, announcing its decision to offer free advertising on Instagram.

    “There is a wonderful sense of community and respect for brands who do this, and I for one hope we see more of this moving forward,” added Chelsea.

    Could your business benefit from collaborating?

    To anyone wondering whether to take a similar approach and team up with other businesses, Colline recommended giving it some thought.

    “It means that you might be able to offer a more diverse and interesting product or service, and potentially reach a bigger and wider audience than you would on your own,” she added.

    That might mean jointly launching a social media promotion or digital event, or opening a pop-up shop – or it might just be about talking to your competitors and the businesses near you, sharing your experiences, and finding out what you can learn from them.

    Have you collaborated with other businesses during the pandemic? Share your experience in the comments below.

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