I can understand the attractiveness of the metaphor as business sometimes looks like its getting all Lord of the Flies. Companies come and go, apparently succumbing to the forces of competition. Profits are made and lost. People's jobs, like lives on a battlefield, are on the line. Kill or be killed. It all frequently feels like a zero sum game.
And war usually is a zero sum game. One side wins and the other side loses. Well, I'm not even sure that is entirely accurate. War involves losses on both sides, the value of which may actually exceed the estimated value of going to war. In the cases of so called Pyrrhic Victories, the victor simply cannot afford to keep engaging in excursions of conquest. Martial conquest does not guarantee profit.
But as similar as business can seem to war, business is not quite the same. Sure, competition is ever present. Contracts are violated. Deals fail to close or are lost to another offeror. There's espionage and subterfuge. But whereas war usually involves two fronts—red versus blue, Joe versus Charlie, Allied versus Axis—business involves at least three fronts: you, the competition, and your customers.
In war, the primary focus rests on the competition, and the goal is to eliminate them, either by all out destruction or by dousing their will to contend. In war, one side usually surrenders to the other. But this is really not the case in business. The primary goal is not to eliminate the competition (it may be counterproductive to do so), but to win the attention of your customers. The real goal of business is to make a transaction in which at least two sides mutually benefit more than if no transaction occurred. The competition is present, and possibly corrosive, but it's not the primary concern.
The competition itself may evolve and satisfy needs and preferences that your own offerings don't satisfy. And so, in this way, business works out to be something more like a complex ecosystem of niche partitioned agents who are seeking to sustain their ability to generate ongoing profitable transactions. And yet it's not so much White Fang as much as it is…well…Pride and Prejudice. (Do I lose my man card for saying that?)
That's right. I think the best metaphor for business is romance in which we as suitors vie for the attention of our beloved—the customer. Again, the competition is there, but it's not our primary concern. We have to learn to deal with it and respond to it; however, if our attention on the competition dominates our activities versus our attention on our customers, current and potential, we may wind up winning a fight but losing our reason for existence, like two boys fighting it out in the school yard over a girl who walks away in disgust.
There is so much more to long term success than revenue generation. But success doesn't happen because we have no competition. Success happens because we provide something that satisfies a need better than the alternatives, even if one of those alternatives is nothing more than what our customers are already doing. What those real needs and preferences are is often hard to identify, but we don't find those out by going to war. We discover them the way lovers learn to fulfill each other's needs. While war is dehumanizing and often provides the psychological barriers that permit actions against others we would normally never consider, romance is about fulfillment.
Let me close with this quote from Marc Hedlund's Blog, in which Marc discloses his thoughts on closing his company, Wasabi:
You can't blame your competitors or your board or the lack of or excess of investment. Focus on what really matters: making users happy with your product as quickly as you can, and helping them as much as you can after that. If you do those better than anyone else out there you'll win.