We’ve all been there. After twenty minutes of binging on an Instagram newsfeed, you feel the familiar pang of jealousy. Some people have it so easy. Continuing to lay on the couch, you wonder why their life looks so different from your laundry pile, home “office”, and three-day-old outfit you’ve been stress-wearing because #deadlines. It seems like everyone else is meditating and doing yoga, spending mornings over coffee and donuts with their neighborhood girl-gang, and cranking out awesome designs while writing about how they achieved balance. You wonder why their client projects are so much more interesting, and how they magically land on perfection.
You analyze their images, wondering if it’s the way they edited the colors that are making people fall head over heels. You consider buying flowers. You notice how they write their captions and organize their photography. You look to see who else they are following.
Oh man. You’ve just found yourself in a comparison rabbit hole, and it doesn’t look like you’ll be coming out of it anytime soon. Might as well pour another glass of wine and put your sweatpants on. Your life is practically over anyways. All of a sudden, you’re painfully aware of just how many times you’ve failed as an artist and wonder if your art even matters. You’re remembering every negative email you’ve ever received or every friend you’ve lost touch with. You begin to question all of your decisions and wonder how you’ll ever find a way to move forward. Everything’s been done before, and it turns out you’re not special or even unique.
Woah, woah, brave entrepreneur. It’s time to put competition into perspective. Not only will it steal your joy, but it will paralyze you and keep you from moving forward. You’ll find yourself in the same place a year later looking at the same accounts and wondering why you didn’t do anything. Consider the Rule of Abundance - there are endless things to compare and endless “successful” people to compare yourself to. If you don’t nip this habit, it will destroy both you and your aspiring small business.
It can be so tempting when you’re starting out to look for guidance, and instead fall into the trap of copying. You think no one will notice. It won’t hurt anybody, and it’s just until you figure out what you’re doing. In fact, everyone says imitation is really just flattery. They wouldn’t put it on Pinterest if they weren’t ok with someone using it.
In small business, and especially creative entrepreneurship, there are four C-words that must be addressed.
The Four Deadly C-words in Small Business
We’ve all heard the advice before - “Just don’t pay attention to the people you compare yourself to.” Hm… easier said than done. In some instances, you can’t ignore it. What if your comparison kryptonite is your coworker, business partner, family member, or best friend? What are you supposed to do then? You may even have brief hesitation in eliminating all comparison from your life. I felt that too, and realized there may actually be some good in it. Shocked? I’ll explain...
When it comes to comparison, it’s much better to understand the root of why we compare ourselves in the first place so that we can kick the habit of self-doubt.
The first step is to acknowledge what’s going on - you are in the middle of feeling a form of jealousy. No matter if you are just starting out or at the top of your game, you will inevitably always feel tempted to compare your story (or work, or social following, or client list) to those around you. It’s human nature - it’s how we validate our decisions or justify our inaction. It’s how our minds cope with the stress of navigating unchartered territory.
We compare what we’re doing with what others did when faced with the same challenge.
Knowing that comparison isn’t an “if, then” clause (“If Susie is successful, then I’m a failure”) let’s shift this mentality and call it admiration. Gonna preface this to say that this is a lot easier when it’s business comparison than personal comparison; however, we have to start somewhere, and hope that good business practices will translate into our personal lives.
Who have you been admiring lately? Why? What is it about what they are doing that inspires you? What can you learn from them? What are they doing, saying no to, investing in, talking about that could be good insight into what they’ve learned from their chosen path? How could you incorporate these LESSONS (not actually things - read word #2) into your own life?
If you can’t admire someone without feeling sick to your stomach, then you have found an unhealthy influence in your business and should remove them from your line of vision immediately.
Wherever there is comparison, there are copycats: those who do not have a healthy relationship with comparison and are under the assumption one becomes successful by mimicking success.
However, success is not a how-to guide. If you merely copy the success of someone else, you become a second-rate version of their story.
Example: recently I found one of the most blatant copycats online of a designer I’ve admired for some time. It was uncanny, and unsettling, how closely this other designer was stealing her ideas, life experiences, and communication style. The copied designer wrote a post about it and I could feel her hurt from feeling that her experiences were being violated by someone she had never met, had never walked in her shoes, and had not earned the right to claim her story.
Even if your intentions are good, imitation is not a form of flattery. It’s a sloppy shortcut to try to capitalize on the risks someone else took to do something new. You don’t want that, and you certainly don’t want to cause someone who has inspired you to feel hurt and discouraged. Nobody wins.
As a copycat, you’ll always be one step behind - looking to your “inspiration” to see what they do next and then adopting their innovative ideas. You’ll essentially rob yourself of the opportunity to feel true accomplishment, to inspire someone else, or to grow and learn from your efforts.
If you’ve found yourself following a little too closely to your inspiration, it’s not too late. Take out a piece of paper. On the front, write down WHY you are inspired to copy and WHAT principle did they use that translated into success. Then, take inventory of what you’re putting online. Go ahead and delete what you need to delete. Start over with the conviction and resolution to only put out original ideas. You owe it to your own unique creativity.
Ok, so there is such a thing as good competition. If you don’t have competitors, you may not be actually solving a problem. Finding your competitors will help you to see how to position your own business. It’s just a natural step in understanding the needs of your market.
But some people get really carried away here. They begin to use comparison to match the quality of their competitors. They forget when customers see two competitors that look identical, then the only thing to do is price shop.
No, no, no. You want to be different. Your competitor wants you to be different. Your customer wants you to be different.
So when looking for competitors - only note how your service or product is vastly different than what they are offering. Note every single difference you can think of. This is how you determine your positioning, your unique business factor, when marketing yourself online. Celebrate the differences (without shaming the competition) Vow to only attract those who will be looking for the exact thing that makes you stand out.
You will be so happy that you did and begin attracting customers who appreciate what you have to offer.
So inevitably, you’ll face a little bit of conflict in this area. Whether you’re having to confront a copycat, distance yourself from some unhealthy comparison, or handle negativity, it’s good to have a game plan.
Here’s how to deal.
As strict as it feels, if your work has been blatantly copied and could negatively affect your business, it’s ok to seek legal action and send a cease and desist letter. You have to protect your business, especially if what they are copying is original creative work that a client has paid for. At that point, it no longer just affects your own business, but also that of your client. Always be gracious, but clear. Understand that sometimes people don’t do it on purpose or don’t realize the implications. Try not to burn a bridge.
If you’re dealing with negativity online, remember what Beyonce taught us: “Always stay gracious.” Handle negative feedback with sincerity. Apologize, or acknowledge, when you’ve made a mistake. The worst thing you can do is match negativity with negativity.
If you know you need to distance yourself from certain people online, know it’s ok. You can always go back when you’re in a healthier place. It isn’t a lack of support, but a necessary means to protect your own momentum. Usually, that person won’t even notice.
If a customer asks you to copy the work of your competitor or a previous client project, again approach the situation with grace. We all struggle with comparison and thinking that we want what others have. Try to pivot the direction and pursue originality. Aim to go deeper and figure out WHY they love it and how the idea could lead to something original. And if all else fails, send them elsewhere. Never compromise your integrity for the approval of a client.
So I leave you with this:
If at the end of the day, you’re driven by competition - well, then, compete with yourself. Set your own goals and try to beat them. See if you can hack your own style and come up with a consistent way of showing it. Create your own dream life instead of hustling to match someone else’s. Try, and fail, and try again.
If you’re really struggling with this, or maybe just need a reminder to be mindful of comparison, I’ve created a series of iPhone wallpaper designs with a quote that will help you keep things in perspective. Simply enter your email address below for a little daily mindfulness right in your hand!
Then leave a comment below and let me know if you've found any helpful tools for overcoming comparison!