Why you should make competition your friend: 3 strategies for staying ahead with Grace Sai

(Photo taken from hnworth.com)

Grace Sai was in San Francisco when a colleague told her to check out co-working space Hub San Francisco.

Sai had a date that night and didn’t want to go. But her friend was undaunted and drove Sai right to The Hub’s doorstep. When Sai stepped in, she felt something connect. “It was the energy of a collection of courageous people,” she remembers, “taking risks to create the future.”

Two years after that night, Sai co-founded Impact Hub Singapore. In the past four years, The Hub has grown from one to two locations and more than 700 members. It also added a venture fund for early-stage tech startups and a corporate innovation arm. A third location will be opening in the second quarter of this year.

The Hub may have gotten a head start, but today it faces many competitors in the co-working space. In 2017, Business Times reported that there were more than 50 co-working spaces in Singapore. American company WeWork launched its 200th location here last year. Chinese company UrWork operates 78 co-working spaces in 20 major countries. UrWork already has one co-working space here and will soon launch another.

So how does The Hub stay on top of major competition? Sai has counter-intuitive strategies for staying ahead, including this: Don’t see competition as the enemy.


Why competition is your best friend

“I really see competition as my best friend!” Sai laughs. “Because they make me better. I need competition to become sharper.”

How does she actually make use of competition? “When I read about my competitors,” Sai says, “I’m always thinking about what I can learn from them. It’s never about what they’re doing that scares me. It’s never out of fear.”

Sai is clear that there are going to be people competing for business, but she has tough love for that. “This is the real world, right? Any entrepreneur who can’t live with competition shouldn’t be one!”


Become your own category

Sai’s second strategy for overcoming competition is not to compete in the first place. Instead, become your own category.

“Most co-working operators are selling seats,” she explains. “We provide ecosystem-as-a-service. It’s nuanced. The tables, the chairs, the internet access, these are what people see. But it may not be what people truly need.”

A lot of competitors have a price war with each other, because what can you compete on if you’re only selling seats? Location, view, design and price. We’re not interested to be in that category.

Sai uses WeWork as an example. WeWork provides co-working spaces, but it also designs custom offices for enterprise. “We don’t do that,” Sai says. “But if a Fortune 500 company says, ‘We want our employees to become more entrepreneurial,’ we can help with that through our ecosystem.”

Sai describes The Hub’s ecosystem as a ‘full-stack’ approach. There’s co-working real estate, but there’s also the founder, mentor and coaching programs. There are peer circles, and the Hub Ventures Fund that invests in startups. The Hub also works to facilitate corporate-startup engagement, and has connections to the government and the media that its members can draw upon.

“We are alone in our category,” Sai emphasises. “A lot of competitors have a price war with each other, because what can you compete on if you’re only selling seats? Location, view, design and price. We’re not interested to be in that category.”

We were wrapping up our conversation with Sai when she told us that there was one more missing piece to staying competitive. And it’s something that most people don’t ask her about enough.


Your team needs to believe in two things

A lot of people tend to focus on her, Sai says, but she reminds us that The Hub is not a one-woman show. The Hub works because the team works, and “the Hub team works because they’re committed to both the purpose and approach. They don’t just believe in the ‘how,’ they also believe in the ‘why.’”

It takes more than 9-to-5 employees to stay competitive. “My team doesn’t view their work as a job,” Sai says. “The moment anyone feels this is only a job, I’ll ask them to leave. It has to be their own journey as much as mine. When you hire and fire based on that, you have a committed team that’s marching to the same beat.”

How does someone cultivate that same kind of passion and commitment in a team? Sai’s answer is to focus not on the team building, but on the hiring process.

“Hire slow and fire fast. A lot of founders do the opposite. They rush into hiring, but the process deserves its own time. Every addition is a huge opportunity cost if not done right.”

 Photo taken from  Impact Hub's Webpage

Photo taken from Impact Hub's Webpage

3 strategies to stay competitive

When facing competition, these are the three strategies that Grace Sai uses.

1. See competition as your best friend

Instead of worrying about competition, ask yourself what you can learn from them. See your competition as that brutally honest friend who’s always asking you tough questions, to help you become a better person.

2. Become your own category

Instead of becoming better, how can you become different? Offer what your competitors can’t, so you don’t become trapped in a price war.

3. Align your team

It’s not a one-person show. Build a strong team that’s aligned along the same purpose and methods to get there. One way you can do this is to hire slow and fire fast. Take the time to find the right people for your team, the ones who won’t take your company as just another job.