Who do you compare yourself to?

Seth Godin posted a brief comment about his experience with “One Flew South,” a restaurant in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Terminal E.  The simple post notes that the secret for the restaurant’s success is that “[they] don’t compare [themselves] to other airport restaurants.”  The implication being that if you allow the standards of your business to be defined by the lowest-common-denominator (i.e. the airport restaurant), at best, you are only the best of the worst.  This prompted a bit of a thought journey for me, that I figured I would share.

What metric are you using to compare?

When I first approached this question, I pulled out the standard comparison that we tend to use in our organization for defining rates, markets, competitors, etc:  the big guys in the IT consulting services in our market.  Typically those competitors are IBM, CGI, Sierra Systems, Fujitsu, and ARC Business solutions.  Now, we tend to think that way because the partners in this enterprise earned their stripes in that environment.  But when you stop to think about it, there is almost no similarity between our tiny organization and those others.

When you look at size as a metric, our entire organization could be written of as their turnover, for some of them, the turnover in a month.  If you use number of clients, same things goes.  Offices, ditto.  So why is it, then, that we compare ourselves to those organizations?  Why do we torture ourselves with the knowledge that in all likely-hood we will never be their equal?

Its my feeling that we do so not because of measurable comparisons with those organizations, but because of our alignment with the values that their clients ostensibly hold them to.  Organizations hire the big services companies because they have an aura of professionalism, an inertia of experience, a perceived ability to deliver and an expectation of quality.  Empirical evidence suggests that on any given project many, some and even none of those qualities may present because of the specific resource engaged, but that is the expectation that the client holds when they go looking for one of those organizations.  By comparing ourselves with those organizations, we are communicating to the market that those are things they can expect from us too and it communicates to our organization that every one here has a hand in ensuring we do.

But if we go back to the specific metrics, if none of them apply to the group we tend to use as competitors, who should we be comparing ourselves with?  The usual answer is the others doing work in your market/industry.

Who do you compare yourself to if you’re unique?

Our problem is that not only is there no one of our size in our market, there is no one at all local and quite likely very few any where else.  We seem to be one of the few IT consulting firms that is playing in this market.  This means one of two things:  we’re chasing ghosts and everyone else has figured that out, or we’ve created our own niche and no one has followed us yet.  We certainly believe that later is true and excellent revenue over 2 years says we’re not all wrong.  But if we’re all alone, who do we compare ourselves to?

Some might say that we should be finding other IT consulting firms of our size and compare ourselves despite the cross market differences.  Some might say that we should be looking in our market for others doing what we are across the country.  Both of these  things are intelligent things to be doing for sharpening the saw and community building, but to be honest, they feel much to much like comparing our restaurant the other airport restaurants.

In hindsight, are you who you want to be?

At the end of the day, we aspire to be the IT consulting firm that can meet the needs of any fortune 500 organization.  So comparisons of ourselves to those that are certainly seems like the best course of action.  Are we who we want to be, not yet.  But we’re certainly on the right track and we’re certainly better than the other airport restaurants.