In business, we train ourselves to see competition as the default driver of innovation and market success. Yet some forward-thinking entrepreneurs are installing more cooperation into their mission — and are thriving.

So which is more important: competition or cooperation?

About 35,000 companies apply to “Shark Tank” annually for their 10 minutes in the limelight, and only 0.15 percent of those get a deal. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning, get into Harvard Business School’s MBA program, or get bitten by an actual shark. So why do all these entrepreneurs even apply?

Entrepreneurs have been conditioned that they need to be hard-nosed sharks to win at business, but that management style creates more enemies than allies. A paper published in the Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, looked at hundreds of research papers on the subjects of competition and performance and it finds no clear connection between the two.

Basically, competition does not enhance performance.

So the emphasis on competition misses the point. In fact, it may be bad for your business to act like a shark. But what’s the alternative? Should that 99.85 percent who compete to swim with the sharks actually look for more cooperative networks… like dolphins?

Let’s learn from the cooperative brilliance of dolphins

Researchers have observed (PDF) dolphins in the wild cooperating while searching for and capturing prey. Dolphins will circle around the weak members of the pod and viciously attack anything that approaches in a threatening manner. And they can kill sharks. Most predators take one look and then swim away.

We live in a networked economy and market, and these systems “recognize cooperative relationships that leverage value created by those in the network,” according to Julie Bowser of IBM (PDF). Being a shark entrepreneur in today’s social media environment will quickly narrow your opportunities as people learn to not trust you. Dolphin entrepreneurs will see more opportunities and can pick the opportunities that best fit them. More opportunities means more business, which means more success.

The revaluing of cooperation continues to be supported in the oft-cited book “Co-opetition” from Barry J. Nalebuff (professor at Yale School of Management) and Adam M. Brandenburger (professor at Harvard Business School):

“Business is War? The way people talk about business today, you wouldn’t think so. You have to listen to customers, work with suppliers, create teams, establish strategic partnerships-even with competitors. That doesn’t sound like war. Besides, there are few victors when business is conducted as war.”

“Business is cooperation when it comes to creating a pie and competition when it comes to dividing it up.”

“Most businesses succeed only if others also succeed. For instance Intel chips and Microsoft [and Apple].”

So is it better to compete in the war of the sharks or cooperate within a network of dolphins?

I’ve found out the hard way that when you do business with a shark, you often get bitten. A peer and competitor sabotaged my successful company by blacklisting me from a high-level networking group. After discovering the betrayal, I changed my peer group from sharks to entrepreneurial “dolphins” that supported each other in business — and I’ve thrived ever since.

I didn’t want to form business deals where I had to beat up a fellow entrepreneur. Each deal now has to be a win for me, a win for my customer, and a win for a related charity. In our company, we call this a win–win–win environment. For instance, my company publishes self-help authors. We make money helping them complete their book, build their book cover, and even market their book. Our clients get their book out into the world and we teach them how to make money from it. They also support an aligned charity through profit-sharing and promotion.

I went from fighting and getting beaten up by other business owners to creating deals where everyone comes out on top. I realized that I can choose whom I do business with based on how they treat their partners, vendors, clients, and other stakeholders.

I spoke with a few peers and they agree. Lauren Randolph, founder of MyHotelWedding.com says, “As a lifelong soccer player, I’ve always been team-oriented. When I became an entrepreneur I felt lost and alone until I found a group of like-minded business owners who were willing to meet and share their experiences. Now we all help each other to not make the same mistakes and have expanded our network of resources tenfold.”

Sound good? Now go put it into practice.

Five ways to be a dolphin entrepreneur

  1. Appreciate your competition. Learn from them and be happy for their success.
  2. Work with them when advantageous to both. You and your fellow dolphin entrepreneurs in your industry can help maintain ethics and make the industry better for all.
  3. When a business deal is no longer good for your business have an honest and frank discussion with your partners and negotiate a clean exit. Make it so everyone leaves with at least a neutral feeling about it all or happy. No one should feel that they took a majority of the hit. Listen to them and understand their side. Are they better off?
  4. Form business deals where you win, all your partners win and a related community charity wins as well. All three of you can rise up and make your part of the world better. Triple wins can transform the world.
  5. Help new dolphin entrepreneurs. It’s not easy starting out in business and we more experienced dolphin entrepreneurs can be role models for new entrepreneurs by mentoring and doing business with our fellow dolphins. We are a pod of dolphins making the world better one deal, one business, one community at a time. Help others to do the same.

 

Christopher Sherrod

Christopher Sherrod is a conscious entrepreneur with long hair who loves to meditate. He is the founder of Dolphin Entrepreneur, an email newsletter focused on conscious business principles, the author of “How To Create New Business Ideas Based On What You Love,” and the founder of BlissLife Press — a publisher that helps creative entrepreneurs to launch their books through his win-win-win publishing system where the author wins, the publisher wins, and a related book charity wins.