Competition Can Push You to Achieve Greater Results

“A Great Rival is Like a Mirror”

The competition between American tennis stars Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi became the dominant rivalry in tennis during the ’90s. With their remarkably different styles and temperaments, the two produced a great number of remarkable games. Between 1989 and 2002, Sampras won 20 of their 34 head-to-head matches, of which Sampras won four of the five Grand Slam finals they played. Sampras also held the world No. 1 spot for a record 286 weeks whereas Agassi held it for 101 weeks.

'Open: An Autobiography' by Andre Agassi (ISBN 0307388409) Asked how his rivalries helped and hurt him in the October 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, Agassi (who is married to tennis legend Steffi Graf) recollected:

A great rival is like a mirror. You have to look at yourself, acknowledge where you fall short, make adjustments, and nurture the areas where you overachieve. There were times my rivals brought out the best in me; there were times they brought out the worst. They probably helped me win things I never would have otherwise; they also cost me titles. I don’t know how you quantify what it would have been like without a rival like Pete Sampras. I would have won more. But I think I would have been worse without him.

Idea for Impact: The risk of being outdone by a closely matched rival can push you further

A certain amount of competition can be helpful when it motivates you and doesn’t result in stress or hurt your personal relationships.

Push yourself past the familiarity and safety of your comfort zone by pursuing some healthy competition. Leaving your comfort zone helps you grow, transform, and feel stronger from the experience.

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars: A Case Study in Determination and Competitive Ferocity


Competition Drives so much of our World Today

We live in a hypercompetitive age where winning is the outcome, often necessary for survival—in classrooms, sports, trade and commerce or at work. The archetypical successful person is determined, aggressive, and obsessed with winning at everything, sometimes at any cost. Of course, competition is healthy; but, winning may come at a hefty price—always striving to win or being overzealous can be both unnecessary and unproductive. Besides, collaborative or naturally uncompetitive individuals tend to find competitive people somewhat unpleasant.

History provides but a few vivid portraits of intense competition that compare to the mid-90s’ “browser wars,” a narrative characterized by the dogged determination and intense competitive spirit of some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are legendary for using brute power: whenever a new competitor emerged, Microsoft would muster its financial resources and its smarts to storm into those markets with alternative products that would eventually dominate. Up until the dot-com bust, Microsoft not only out-competed Borland, Lotus Development, Corel, and other rivals that were previously in the lead, but also crushed upstarts such as Netscape.

“The Browser Wars”: Rise and Fall of Netscape

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars At the start of 1995, a new software called Netscape Navigator took the computing world by storm. Unlike primitive browsers, Netscape could display text and graphics on websites. Early web buffs eager to discover the marvel of the nascent internet were no longer restricted to downloading text alone. In addition, Netscape could render web pages on the fly while they were still being downloaded. Users did not need to stare at a blank screen until their dial-up connections loaded text and graphics.

Even more astounding was the fact that the upstart Netscape Communications, Netscape Navigator’s creator, had been co-founded by a 23-year-old programmer just a few months previously and seemed well-positioned to take advantage of the imminent consumer internet revolution. Netscape was on its way to an extraordinary 90% market share amongst internet browsers. What’s more: the company’s spectacular IPO was drawing near and was to start the dot-com boom.

Netscape’s meteoric rise could not escape the attention of the world’s dominant software company. Early in 1995, Microsoft was particularly occupied with finalizing Windows 95. Its launch, scheduled for August 1995, would prove to be the largest, most expensive consumer marketing endeavor in history. Moreover, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) had embarked on an intrusive investigation into claims of unfair business practices as alleged by Microsoft’s competitors.

While Netscape was capturing the Web browser market, Microsoft and Bill Gates had seemingly missed the paradigm shift created by the consumer internet. Financial and technology analysts wondered if Microsoft was destined to lose its supremacy over software. Microsoft could not wait on the sidelines and cede business opportunities in the upcoming consumer internet revolution.

Browser Wars: The Rise and Fall of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer

Bill Gates and Microsoft Jumped on the “Internet Tidal Wave”

Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and the Microsoft team were not to be trifled with. Microsoft simply could not afford to be the underdog. Its strategy was transformed entirely when, on 26-May-1995, Bill Gates wrote the groundbreaking internal memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave.”

Bill Gates deployed an extraordinary amount of capital and talent to battle for control over consumer internet. Just after the August-1995-release of Windows 95, Microsoft released an inferior Internet Explorer 1.0. In 1996, Version 3.0, matched the features of Netscape Navigator. Finally, in 1997, after bundling Internet Explorer 4.0 into Windows 95, Microsoft started to take a significant market share from Netscape.

In 1998, the DOJ and twenty US states alleged that Microsoft had illegally thwarted competition by abusing its monopoly in personal computers to bundle its Internet Explorer and Windows operating system.

By 1999, Netscape was an inferior web browser and quickly lost its dominance. The software’s market share dropped from 90% in 1996 to a meager 4% by 2002.

In subsequent installments of the browser wars, Netscape Navigator’s open-source successor, Firefox, regained market share from Internet Explorer. More recently, Firefox and Internet Explorer have had to contend with Google’s Chrome, which has grown to be the dominant web browser.

Microsoft Set Out to Destroy Competitor after Competitor

Historically, Microsoft has never been a substantial innovator. Instead, the company’s most famous strategy was to be a “fast follower.” The variety of rivals’ projects made no difference—competitors could pioneer anything from graphical user interfaces (GUI,) pointing devices, spreadsheets, word processors, browsers or gaming consoles and Microsoft would catch up in due course.

Consequently, the most important Microsoft products started essentially as copies of existing products made by competitors or upstarts that Microsoft was able to purchase early. MS-DOS evolved from QDOS, which itself derived from CP/M. Microsoft Windows was inspired by Apple’s Macintosh, which, in turn, had been inspired by a prototype mouse-driven graphical user interface that Steve Jobs had seen at Xerox PARC. Microsoft Excel borrowed from VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. In addition to riding the coattails of bona fide innovators, Microsoft excelled in smart integration—it combined nifty functions and features into a single product or into a suite of easy-to-use tools such as its Office productivity software.

Microsoft’s Once-Invincible Strategy of Being a “Fast Follower” Wasn’t Sustainable

Alas, in the last 15 years, Microsoft’s “fast follower” competitive strategy has proven unsustainable. As its dominance in the enterprise world grew, Microsoft’s impressive financial performance relied mostly on its “old faithful” franchises. In fiscal 2014, the Windows operating system, Office productivity suite, and servers/cloud businesses contributed 78% of Microsoft’s revenue and almost all of the gross profit.

Despite the competitive ferocity of Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and others at the company’s helm, Microsoft has been unable to return to its domineering ways in the internet’s recent mobile- and social-computing trends. In fact, Microsoft stumbled in category after category of consumer computing and technology, including search, social networking, phones, music players, and tablets. Google, Facebook, Apple—lead by entrepreneurs just as intensely competitive as Bill Gates—have soared ahead, altering the social-media-tech consumer experience.

Recommended Reading: If you like business history and entrepreneurial success stories, read ‘Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time’, Daniel Gross’s engaging profiles of twenty great American entrepreneurs: Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris, McDonald’s ‘founder’ Roy Kroc, Walt Disney, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, et al. For more stories of Bill Gates’s fierce competitive instincts, read Stephen Manes’s “Gates”.

Respect the Competition

In business, as in sports or work-life, it is essential to possess a mature sense of respect for the competition. The recent arguments between US Airways [ LCC] and JetBlue Airways [ JBLU] form a case in point.

JetBlue recently announced services between New York JFK and North Carolina in direct competition with services offered by US Airways. As part of this announcement, JetBlue’s CEO David Neeleman commented, “… until now, the people of North Carolina have overpaid for sub-standard service.” This was a direct attack on US Airways, which has a strong presence in these routes.

In response, Doug Parker, the CEO of US Airways, addressed employees “upset by these remarks” as follows; read the full response here.

First, I know David pretty well and I can assure you he is a genuinely good person. That he chose to make such a remark is probably indicative of the stress that JetBlue is under and we should not take his remarks personally.

He then explained the problems JetBlue faces and compared JetBlue’s offerings with his company’s.

It doesn’t appear that our customers are overpaying; rather it appears that passengers aren’t willing to pay JetBlue enough for them to be profitable.

JetBlue is struggling mightily and the hard working employees of US Airways are a big reason why. Rather than get upset by their comments we should keep them in context … US Airways is going to be here long after JetBlue.

… we will compete aggressively, we will focus on running our own race and we will win. Thanks so much for taking care of our customers and please keep it up.

When faced with a competitor’s unfavourable remarks, it is tempting to confront and bad-mouth the competition. In such circumstances, employees look forward to directions from a company’s leadership. Often, blowing out the competition’s candle to make one’s shine brighter can backfire, create ill will among employees and lead to loss of customer respect. In his message, Doug Parker sets a clear competitive tone by first uttering words of respect for the competition and then explaining the circumstances involved.

In the intensely competitive airline industry, front-line customer service is a critical differentiator. Customer service consists of a series of interactions that customers have with employees: ticketing agents, gate agents and flight attendants. Evidently, JetBlue has a reputation for better customer service. Doug sends a clear message to boost the morale of his employees and motivating them to deliver superior customer experiences.

Clearly, Doug Parker’s respectful and pragmatic approach exudes a winning attitude. The trust and confidence in his message appeals to employees, customers and the competition.