Last night, I got a message from Keith Burtis. Keith often pings me just to say hi or chat. We sometimes talk on Skype. He’s a person I know I can turn to to celebrate my successes, and who I can lean on when things go bad. We’ve collaborated on a bunch of things to do with work. I consider him a very good friend.

Alan Isfan is another good friend of mine. We catch up a couple of times a week, have collaborated on some work stuff, and he’s that guy I know I can rely on 100%  to help me out in a pinch, whether it’s a work-related challenge or if I am stuck on the side of the road in a blizzard.

I am grateful every day to have such terrific and talented people around me. But what I find fascinating is, even though we have these strong, solid personal relationships, and even though we have built a tremendous amount of trust with one another, we are actually each others’ competition.

You see, Alan, and Keith and I are all in the same business. We use new media, social media and video to help our clients tell stories. Ultimately, we are all drawing from the same well. How is it that we’re not mortal enemies, then?

You must remember this. Think about 10-15 years ago. Competitors were something to be stifled, pushed down, tromped on. If a businessperson didn’t know who their competitors were and how to beat them, they simply weren’t doing it right. It was a wicked game, but one that many played hard. Sometimes, they’d even go so far as to befriend the competition, but their intent was often devious. They  just wanted to find out how their competitors ticked. What was tripping them up. So they could swoop in and scoop the business. Now before you jump all over me, it wasn’t ALWAYS like this. That’s where the phrase “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!”, came from. I worked for giant corporations for many years; if they couldn’t compete, they just tried for a monopoly. Yah, that’ll show ’em.

Play it again, Sam. Oh sure, fierce competition still goes on today on many levels. Giant corporations certainly haven’t changed THAT much. But I do sense a shift in the small to medium business world, and I wonder if it has to do with the shift in the way we communicate and connect with one another. Think about it – how many people do you know in your social networks that you consider someone you trust? Someone you’d like to do business with? Collaborate with? Partner with? Now how many of those people are your direct competitors?

It’s all about US. If you’re anything like me, you’ll answer the above questions with things like “Oh, so many of the people I know online I’d love to work with!”,  “I trust that person immensely!”, and “I’d do anything I can to help that person!”. Times have changed indeed. That’s the thing about community. Instead of us feeling that we’re all working against each other, pushing and shoving our way into the pockets of those people who need our products and services, we’re all helping each other to succeed. Somehow, we realize that there’s enough to go around. Somehow, we realize that even though we are all trying to do similar things, we’ve all got our own strengths and weaknesses. We know that the sum of the parts makes a stronger whole out here in the online world.

But…There is a flip side to this philosophy – a down side, if you will. Whereas competition and community can co-exist happily much of the time, trust itself can be fickle. One false move and you may find yourself having to build up all over again. I’ve learned some lessons in the past few months about trusting too much. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that I have these great friends like Keith and Allan who I love to hang out with and talk to and work with, but it’s taken time for us to build that. Just because someone wants to be your “friend” doesn’t mean you should dive in with both feet and reveal everything right away, especially if that person is potentially a competitor. It is easy to trust people quickly on things like Twitter. It’s easy to take someone’s recommendation and put your trust in another right away without doing the proper checks and balances to see if that person’s reputation stands up. And as a result, it’s easier than ever to get burned. So should you close down? Not at all. But do keep your guard up, until people prove themselves…and I mean with real stuff, not just words.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is…This post stems from a bunch of stuff that has been swimming around in my head lately. It comes from a situation with Keith and Allan last night where we were able to work together to create something that I hope helps Keith out in a big way. It comes from the fact that I’m completely engrossed in Chris and Julien’s book Trust Agents right now (click that big book up on the right side there, so you can buy oh, I dunno, 1 or 50 or 100 or 1000 copies, ok?). I’m totally biased; I’m not making any secret about that. But honestly it’s been a while since a business book has had me thinking so much. To the point of distraction sometimes. It’s definitely wrapping my head around some things that I’ve been noodling with for a while.

What it comes down to is, somehow, this space that we’re sharing out here has made us aware, in no uncertain terms, of who our competition is. As businesspeople, that’s a good thing. But it’s also made us realize that we’re all just people, trying to succeed, trying to live our passions and dreams. It’s becoming clearer that if we’re in this together, we might as well work together, instead of pushing against each other. Because if we’re all moving in the same direction, ultimately, our clients will be better off. Their stories will be richer. And hey, I guess we will be too.