When I’m stuck on something, just about anything, I open a browser. Sometimes it’s a design puzzle. Sometimes it’s a business challenge. Sometimes it’s simply a Pleasant Internet Thing. It’s an intentional yet hesitant deep dive into a corner of the world that will bring me some clarity and hopefully get me unstuck — like getting up and taking a walk.
Of course, time and time again, this results in me strolling into a competitor’s storefront. When this happens, I often catch myself spinning up a rant about another company. These rants are built of my own fiction, raging and occasionally unjustified (except for the ones that are). I can’t fathom how they’ve achieved the success they’ve achieved. My rant devolves: They’re not just a competitor — they are bad people riddled with incompetence.
On its face, this response appears to be pretty unhealthy (poisonous?) and a bit over-the-top for a co-founder of a digital agency. It’s more fitting of a tennis star or a chess grandmaster (chess sucks, but that’s beside the point). Nevertheless, there it is — a simmering, irrational anger that I find incredibly clarifying.
Mind you: This is not envy. I’m okay with others finding success. That anger is my competitive spirit putting on a show, getting me worked up for the competition — it really does serve a purpose. Competition motivates me. It creates a mild obsession that, for my twisted mind, calibrates my ambition and drives me to learn more.
My co-founder and friend, Paul Ford, is often more fuel than help.
Me: Did you see this thing? It is absolute shit!
Paul: I know. It’s just awful.
Me: How in the world is this as popular as it is? It’s complete garbage.
Paul: Oh, you’re gonna love this. (Proceeds to drop me a YouTube corporate video link.)
All of this bluster reminds me of the weigh-in event before big prize fights. There’s that corny, staged stare-down between the two boxers. The trash-talking kicks in, and the promoters and coaches have to hold their fighters back. It’s all theater, but the energy it creates is undeniable. It is this manufactured frustration that fuels us too.
After a while, we calm down, and I have to give Paul credit for the thought shift I’ve adopted over the past few years. Recently, Paul wrote about why Salesforce is such a runaway success despite it being a cobbled-together pile of third rate code (you heard me). It’s a wonderfully clarifying explanation of how Salesforce projects its values to create connections with its customers. In the midst of all of my anger and disgust, I pause, step out, and try to understand how and why they pulled it off.
Another example — I still to this day don’t fully understand what Pendo does. Yet it’s a billion-dollar company that’s seen enormous success. This ignorance and confusion is humbling and invigorating. It means there’s always so much more to learn.
The competition we rant about is rarely an actual direct threat to us, although we recently had Tracey Zimmerman, president and CEO of Robots and Pencils, on our podcast. Robots and Pencils is, by all accounts, a competitor of Postlight. It was a great conversation. If anything, we bonded over the common challenges we all face as leaders of agencies. The pie is really, really big and there’s plenty for everyone.
Let’s face it: Through another lens, there is no blinding rage at all. It’s just a way of learning propelled by that intense curiosity. We could just admire everyone else’s success, but that’s boring. We didn’t get into this business to be fans of other businesses. We started Postlight to build and grow something unique. Now that we’ve fallen back into our roles as co-founders, this desire to discover new paths and fold that learning back into Postlight’s vision is stronger than ever.