Why Collaborating with Your Competition is Often the Best Strategy

Jake Wilder
Jan 29 · 6 min read

Life’s competitive enough as it is.

In 1974, a 27-year-old filmmaker named Steven Spielberg had just finished shooting a horror movie that took place on the water. The film was over budget and behind schedule. The mechanical shark, nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg’s lawyer, had been so unreliable that they didn’t get many of the planned shots for the movie.

At a cost of roughly $7M to make, the studio was quickly losing hope that it would make its money back.

Until one test screening.

Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal Studios, decided to sit in with the audience. He was amazed at the audience reactions. People loved the suspense. They loved the horror. The crowd felt alive with excitement from beginning to end.

At that moment, he knew that with the right touch, it could be a major hit.

But remember that it’s the 1970s. Cinema had been declining for years as televisions gained popularity. Filmmakers and movie studios clearly saw television as their chief competitor. And like any competitor, they shunned it with a vengeance.

Until Lew Wasserman saw an opportunity. Instead of avoiding television as a marketing medium, he embraced it. He flooded the prime-time television market with trailers in the weeks leading up the film’s debut. He built such anticipation that when the movie opened, people waited in lines that circled around the block. And then went back for repeat viewings.

The movie, of course, was Jaws. It would go on to gross more than $470 million world-wide, launch the career of Steven Spielberg, and set the standard for marketing big-budget films.

Wasserman’s innovation also helped bring cinema back into popularity. With the increased exposure of TV advertising, cinema sales grew and studios realized that they were much better off working with television than against it.

Where most companies saw only a competitor, Lew Wasserman was able to recognize that we can all profit much more from collaboration.

“All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” — Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Most of us were raised to be competitive.

We play sports and we’re rewarded for winning. Victory means stopping for ice cream. Losing means an uncomfortable car ride home full of unasked-for-advice and hindsight-fueled suggestions.

We go to school and we’re rewarded for the right answers. Top students get praise, and maybe more ice cream. Those who struggle are separated out and made to feel worse.

We enroll in colleges that operate on a scarcity model. They take an abundance of students and then thin the herd with scare tactics. Falling behind means that you’re just not smart enough or committed enough.

We take jobs where we’re one of any number of new employees fighting for limited promotions, resources, and opportunities. With cutthroat cultures, bureaucratic hierarchies, and outdated performance management systems, we quickly see those around us as obstacles to our own success.

Through it all, we’re conditioned to believe that life’s a zero sum game. Winning means success. Losing means failure. And in order for one of us to win, someone else needs to lose.

So it’s not surprising that many of us have adopted these “survival of the fittest” mindsets in our daily lives.

Except Darwin never said that. He didn’t promote this competitive approach. He long understood that collaboration and adaptation were the key to survival, writing,

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” — Charles Darwin

Herbert Spencer coined the “survival of the fittest” term in an attempt to legitimize his theories of scientific racism and justify a widening income inequality. He also argued that imperialism benefited civilization by clearing the inferior races from the earth. Yeah, great guy.

While we recognize the lunacy behind some of these claims today, this survival of the fittest mindset still pervades many of our behaviors. We continue to see those around us as competition. We continue to view the world as zero sum.

Because we insist on seeing the world through a narrow frame.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses the idea of narrow and broad framing, as well as a trove of other biases and heuristics that limit our success in life. In short, narrow framing considers each decision separately. Broad framing evaluates each decision as a part of the larger picture.

Narrow framing focuses on today’s decision and the immediate result. Broad framing evaluates that same decision, but as part of a long-term continuum. When narrow framing drives our thinking, we focus on the next sale or the next promotion and neglect the downstream effects. It may result in that next win, but it often brings a future cost.

When we see the world through a narrow frame, everyone’s a competitor. The pie is limited and everyone’s a potential threat to the size of our piece.

Here’s the thing. We know that broad framing results in better choices. It minimizes the effect of bias and helps us make better long-term decisions. And the broader of a view that you take, the easier it is to see how collaboration will benefit more than competition.

The best way to secure that next raise may be by competing against your peers. But long-term success is much more likely to come through positive relationships. Partnering with others to share niche skills lets you not only further develop your specialty, but leverage their expertise as well. In the long-term, those strategic partnerships will pay off much more than a one-time raise.

During an innovation panel at the 2019 ForbesWomen Summit, Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud discussed how their video platform teamed with YouTube, one of their chief competitors, to allow creators to publish their videos on YouTube. As she described it, “What it unlocked was actually a totally new strategy for our company . . . one of the biggest value-adds in our product, and it all came from flipping the script in terms of how you think about whether someone is a competitor or a partner, and prioritizing the problem you want to solve.”

In order to promote the wine and avocado industries in Australia, individual companies partnered to form the collectives Wine Australia and Avocados Australia. While individual producers still competed for market share, they worked together at the industry level to elevate overall quality through standards and regulations, promote local products, and share the cost of research and development. Because of these initiatives, each industry’s grown by a factor of four.

Our competitors, whether it’s that guy at the next desk or the companies across an industry, tend to face similar market challenges with similar skill sets and resources. They understand the things that keep us up at night because they’re going through those very same struggles. There are few better opportunities for symbiotic partnerships to better manage those future challenges.

“Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there.” — Virginia Burden

Here’s one thing I’ve had to learn the hard way: Life gives us all too many challenges to needlessly create more.

Life will offer plenty of struggles and heartache. We don’t need to add to it.

Practice looking at today’s competition through a broader frame. How could you create an opportunity for collaboration and create mutual benefits?

Consider Medium. If you’re reading this, then you’re not reading another author at this moment. Does that make Medium writers competitors?

If you consider it through a narrow frame, then perhaps. But a broad frame would say that when any writers on Medium succeed, the overall platform gets stronger. And as the overall platform grows, we all get more exposure. Which is one of the reasons that creates the supportive, collaborative community we have here.

Maybe the best case for collaboration is that it simply makes life more enjoyable. It’s much more fun to be part of a group that all wants to succeed together. It’s a much more rewarding environment when you have a positive stake in everyone’s success.

And if we want to perform at our collective best, we don’t really have a choice.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +789K followers.

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store