I watched a documentary the other day about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. It revealed a side of the tale that I had not heard before but which resonated with me.
In the early days of computers, years before they would become poster boys for the world of business, Jobs and Gates would regularly meet up at the same bar in San Francisco to talk technology. It was an immensely exciting time which would later become known as the ‘personal computing revolution’, and they shared their excitement by trading ideas on how to accelerate their respective companies, sharing nuggets of expertise and strategy (as well as, it is rumoured, copious bottles of wine) as part of a mutual ‘let’s ride this wave together’ attitude.
Their meetups became famed in the city as their profiles, and companies, grew, and word filtered down through the industry to the retailers who sold their goods. In the UK, Currys and PC World employees were told by bosses to let customers know of better pricing for Apple and Microsoft products in their competitor’s store, if they knew it was available. The manufacturers loved it, the retailers loved it, and most of all – and probably the most touching part of it – consumers really bought into the sense of camaraderie that had percolated through the technology world, and bought more of those products as a result. Everyone was a winner.
Of course, as everyone reading will know, there is not a shred of truth in my story about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Or the retailers selling computers. That’s because they were locked in the fiercest of battles, and they knew instinctively that should they let their guard down, or stopped innovating, or lapsed in trying to secure new segments of the market, they would lose. The jewellery industry is filled with wonderful, passionate, creative people, perhaps more so than most other industries, and we can all enjoy a drink and a canape together at the various functions that punctuate the UK’s jewellery calendar. Indeed, thousands of friendships are forged and maintained with the jewellery industry as their binding influence. But the thousands of individual companies in jewellery are not one big business, one big group of friends, one shared mission.
Rival manufacturers compete for shop window space, constantly produce new collections, and market aggressively. Rival retailers revamp their shop, or put on special offers, or host events to fight for more customers to walk through their door. They do not do this for the good of all in the industry. Neither do they do not do it smiling warmly at their more successful opposite number. The world of business is tough, demanding, aggressive, and inherently self-serving: always has been and always will be.
To lose sight of this fundamental notion is to leave the game without a trace.
True, it need not be a fight to the death: no-one decent takes pleasure in seeing a fellow business go bust. But it is not a cosy hand-holding experience either. To my mind, this is what makes business exciting. It forces dynamism and creativity, independence of spirit, and the fiercer the competition the better the output. Let us not lament a competitive market: we’re at our best and most fulfilled when success is hard won.