Keeping up with the Joneses is a hard task. In business, keeping up with your competition is an even greater risk. Not because your competitors might have more customers, funding or revenue, but because of a subtle factor we never consider: Our competitors might not actually be our competition.

Allow me to explain:

Let’s say you’re a coffee shop. You import your own selection of South American bean, have branded mugs and makers, fresh baked goods behind the counter and a partnership with a local bookstore to retail the latest bestsellers and popular periodicals.

Does competition matter? Coffee shop example.And you keep an eye on Starbucks all day. If they have a sale, you adjust your prices. If they decorate for a holiday, you swap out some décor to play the part. If they change their hours, you respond to capitalize in some way.

But Starbucks isn’t your competition. Your true competition is local cafes, bookstores and even customer’s homes. You’re not a coffee shop, you’re a meeting point. You create space for people to gather, meet, read and work. Starbucks has that, but they are a corporation. They benefit more by running people through the turnstiles. Your business thrives from those who come and stay a while.

Starbucks wants people to use their app and their drive thru. You want people to sit and work long enough to buy some food, maybe a magazine and a second or third cup of coffee. You sell the same products, but different experiences.

Certainly, not keeping an eye on what like-minded shops are doing can hurt you. But know that you’re not just competing to sell product X, but also experience Y. That, too, can be a diversion from what the other guy offers.

What does this mean for a small business?

When you spend all day replicating what the other guy is doing, there’s a huge disconnect. You’re not serving the people in your establishment and the ones you are serving are over in theirs.

The big takeaway is to focus on your audience. Make your efforts about talking to, studying and adjusting to serve your customers, not someone else’s. When you understand their needs and wants from your brand, and the time they spend with it, you ultimately deliver on a promise they’ll reward you for.

How often do you check in on the competition? What succeeded when replicating their ideas? What failed? Could you have spent that time better serving your own customers? Tell us about it in the comments.

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