Uncover the Competition Before Stepping into the Ring

Uncover the Competition Before Stepping into the Ring

When running any business, no matter if it’s in the creative field or another field, it’s extremely crucial to understand your competition. Competition is a great thing. Without it, you wouldn’t have a reason to do things better in your own business. Competition fuels motivation and gives clients many more options to choose from. Happy clients = happy business owners.

Uncover the Competition Before Stepping into the Ring
Image credit: Julian Leach

There are many different forms of competition we need to think about when running a business: Our own competitors (other freelancers or agencies) and our client’s competitors. It’s important to have a handle on both to deliver successful work to your clients and to offer new customers a better experience and more effective solutions to their problems.

Why is Competition a Good Thing?

At first thought, many business owners think of competition as a bad thing. “Oh great, now I’m going to lose some of my customers to Joe.” But in reality, competition pushes us to do more, be the best we can be and never to lose sight of the soul purpose of why we are in business – to serve the customer and give them the best quality service or product that we can.

From a Creative’s Perspective

You’ll need to know a few things about your competition if you want to compete:

  • How they do business
  • What they charge their clients/customers
  • What are they doing that you are not?
  • What can you offer which they don’t or can’t?
  • Where are they marketing? And whom are they targeting?
  • Is there a large enough market for both of your services that you could potentially lean on each other rather than be neck and neck?

How Do You Find Out What Your Competition is Charging?

If they have a website, take a look at their client list or portfolio. You can simply get in contact with one of their clients and ask nicely what they had paid to work with Company X. Not everyone is going to be willing to give out this information. It may be wise to join your local Chamber of Commerce and get to know a few of the businesses in the area. Spend time getting to know the business owners and they may feel more comfortable about disclosing what they were charged and what it was like working with one of your competitors.

Another way to find out what they are charging is to request a quote from them on a project. Just because you are receiving a bid from them, doesn’t mean you have to accept. This may require some work to communicate back and forth with them, but it is a great way to see how their process works too!

Have a Game Plan

When researching your competition, make a list of all of the businesses or freelancers in your area that you are aware of. A great way to find out who is doing business in your area is to check out the local Chamber of Commerce. More often than not they will be a member if they are a respected business in the area.

Look at their websites and take note of each of their service offerings, what their style is like, if they have a particular process listed and who their current clients are.

A great way to easily find out how your competitors are received by local businesses is to simply ask their clients if you can get in contact with them. Tell them you are interested in doing business with them and would like to know how it was to work with them.

Have a Game Plan
Image credit: Jeff the Trojan

Become Frienemies

If you can’t beat them, join them. Or so they always say. In the creative field there is often times when you are too busy and can’t take on additional work. No matter how much you want to take the project, you can only work so many hours in a day before you get burnt out. It’s good to have a list of recommendations you can give to your clients in case you can’t help them out.

Become Frienemies
Image credit: Mind Your Own Website

Having good competition will still give your clients a great experience if you have to send them to someone else. Chances are if your competition handles their account well, they might come back to you in the future with another project. Honesty and simply offering your clients good customer service will go a long way.

Local and Broad Marketing

As designers, marketers, programmers and artists, we often put marketing by the wayside for our own businesses. But, marketing doesn’t need to be a hassle or something that isn’t just as fun as doing client work.

Here are a few ways to get yourself out there and let people know you exist: (especially if you work from home and don’t have a physical location).

  • Publish a Business Website. This can be a daunting task, especially for those of you who aren’t web designers. Another reason why having a circle of freelancers you can bounce ideas off and trade services with is a great idea!
  • Put your Work Online on sites like: Coroflot, Behance, Dribbble, AIGA, Flickr, Freelance Switch and Facebook.
  • Join your Local Chamber and be sure you’re listed in their business directory.
  • Interact with your Peers on Twitter. This is a great way to get to know your competitors! See how they interact on Twitter if they have an account.
  • Send Postcards. Postcards are a very inexpensive way to reach a large audience. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to the local business community as well. You can rent lists from your local post office or check with your Chamber to see if they offer mailing lists to members.
  • Blog and Write Guest Posts. Looking to attract businesses that aren’t in your local area? Practice your writing skills. Write for a well-known website and show off your knowledge. You never know who will be reading them. Writing for websites that might be targeted towards the market you’d like to work with is a great way to gain those clients’ attention.
  • Join a Community Group. One that is filled with folks that make up the business types you are targeting. If you have another hobby, such as gardening for example, make sure your fellow gardeners in your group know what you do. You never know you they might know someone that will be interested in your services.

How to Compete with Equally Talented People & Agencies

This is always the magic question. With such a saturated market in some areas, if you aren’t the best of the best it can be very tough to compete. But even if you are quite talented at what you do, you might still find it hard to compete with those at the same level as you.

How to Compete with Equally Talented People & Agencies
Image credit: Billy Brown

“The best way to compete with those equally talented as you is to offer the best customer service you can.”

Ask questions about your client’s business. Explain to them why you think the designs or whatever you are offering them are successful and how they can improve their business. The more you can learn about your client’s business, the more effective your work will be for them. Showing that you do care about them and not just producing stellar designs for your own benefit can go a long way.

A pet peeve of mine when working with other businesses is non-existent updates and lack of communication. Like anyone, I like to know what is going on with my project. Especially if I am paying for a service. I want to know when it’s going to be worked on, who is going to work on it and when it’s going to be completed. In between it’s especially nice to receive updates on how the project is going and the next steps that are going to be taken. With my clients, I always try and be aware of this and let my clients know how their projects are coming along. I never want them to feel out of control.

Another way to compete by using customer service is to let your clients take hold of the reigns, or at least make them feel that way. It is, after all, their business and you are providing them with a service. Let them chime in and make suggestions. It’s important to make them feel like they are contributing to the project and designs. Don’t ever dismiss an idea from a client. No matter how absurd it might be. Always explain why it wouldn’t be a good idea and suggest a better one. They are paying for solutions.

From a Client’s Perspective

Choosing a Vendor

There are many different reasons a company might choose to hire an agency, work with a freelancer or simply use their in-house resources to complete a project. But how can you possibly understand how to get in front of large corporations or new start-up businesses?

When pitching or submitting a proposal, it’s important to communicate how you can improve their business by what you are doing for them. They want to know more than just what it costs to hire you. Otherwise you won’t last long in such a competitive market.

Client's Perspective
Image credit: Chris Sampson

“Hiring a freelancer or agency is comparable to buying a car in a client’s mind.”

They want to know absolutely everything about it. How it runs, what other people think about it, why it’s better or worse than another and how it can provide a better ride than their current vehicle.

With this in mind, make sure your client has all of the information he needs to make an informed decision about your business. Offer up recommendations they can contact, tell them about your process, explain any preliminary ideas you have about their project and what you propose to do to solve their problems.

Always be Positive

Never talk negatively about your competition. It’s better to say nothing at all or say they do good work if you are asked about them. In most cases, clients aren’t going to offer up the other vendors they are looking into anyways. But if they do, don’t throw them under the bus. That only reflects negatively on you. Always be positive.

Knowing your competition will help you put your best foot forward and focus on the attributes and services that your competition doesn’t offer or doesn’t excel at. Try not to compare yourself to anyone else, which could again reflect negatively on you.

Rates & Pricing

Being competitive doesn’t mean lowering your prices slightly lower than your competition. Just because you are cheaper doesn’t mean you’re going to get hired. You’re not going to buy a car simply because it’s cheaper. You want to know it’s going to be safe, look sharp, last a long time and offer the amenities you are looking for and then some.

Know your local rate per hour for the type of work you are doing. If you’re working abroad or out-of-state, it’s good to research the rates in that area as well before bidding out a job. You may be kicking yourself later if you don’t.


Not all businesses want to work with a freelancer or agency they can’t meet face to face. Make sure they are aware of your location and how you do business with clients in both scenarios before putting too much time into a proposal.

Be Upfront

Make sure you are upfront about the skills you have. If they are asking for something you don’t feel comfortable taking on, give them a reference of someone who can do the task for them. They will appreciate your honesty and appreciate a good reference.

If you are lucky enough to be a jack-of-all-trades, make sure you let your clients know. If the client doesn’t know you can do it, chances are they will think you can’t or aren’t interested. Many larger companies look for agencies simply because they can offer a wide array of services all in one place. To compete with agencies that can offer multiple services, post all your services on your website.

Although there is something to be said about working within a niche, being a jack-of-all-trades can be a good thing too. It just depends who you are targeting as a client.

Understanding Your Client’s Competition

One of the most crucial elements to soak up when working for a client is understanding their competition. Without doing the proper research and having a conversation with your client about their competitors you might end up missing important elements to your project that could make it more effective. Nothing is worse than an ineffective website or even accidently using the same colors as the competitor because you didn’t do the research. Not only does this reflect poorly on your business, but it also poses more problems for your client than they initially had to begin with.

So, how do you go about gathering this type of information?

A project brief is the perfect way to start off this conversation with your clients. It consists of a list of questions to help you better understand their business. Not only should it cover competitors, it should also touch on their business and project goals, design preferences if they have any, and other information pertaining to the project. Ask them who their competitors are, what they offer that they don’t and what they are doing that your client isn’t.


Remember, competition is what pushes us to be more innovative. Without it, we would be at a standstill. Always know who your competition is and who your clients’ competitors are to be as successful as you possibly can be.

Sarah Lynn is the owner of Sarah Lynn Design. A web designer and creative who digs pixels, paint & blogging. Her day consists of creating & designing email campaigns, soaking up CSS knowledge, building better user interfaces & websites and even the occasional print project.


  1. / Reply

    Awesome writeup…Each point is to the point:)

  2. / Reply

    Thanks Nikhil!

    • Joe Waltson,
    • July 19, 2011
    / Reply

    Good Article. Differentiation focus strategy that company seeks to differentiate into one or a small number of target market segments. The special needs of clients in the segment, there are ways to provide products that are different from competitors who can appeal to a wider group of clients.

    • John,
    • July 20, 2011
    / Reply

    I always believe in checking out the market before entering the competition. But I seem to jump in full force and see if I can get some traffic first and then start upgrading my stuff!

  3. / Reply

    Indeed competition brings out the best. And what is so amazing is the quality of products or services being created for consumers’ choice.

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