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Zero Sum People

Sep 29, 2020 12:27:50 PM / by Tim McCarthy

Except in sports, it doesn’t seem to me that for one side to win, the other must lose. That’s the concept of zero sum, and I’ve learned to avoid people who practice it.

I consider myself very competitive in business, but my competitors did not have to lose for me to win. In fact, I learned early that selling against a competitor was less effective as identifying, then selling to my prospect’s needs.


The most fascinating of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” was his urging me to consider the “law of abundance” over the “law of scarcity”. Win/win is the habit. Put into practice, I apply Covey’s theory by avoiding both win/lose and lose/win.

On one hand, we should avoid adding unnecessary features to our products and services so that we can charge a higher price. That’s win/lose - our customer loses and we “win”. Conversely, if we discount our product or service, it’s a lose/win – our customer wins and we lose.

It seems simple but, here again, simple is hard.

Win/win is difficult to achieve because it takes more time and energy to assure it. But as in most cases, simple is true. Provide what my customer needs at a price that makes me money and we both win.

In the first few years of my business, clients often wanted to “work deals” for my services. Most commonly, they would ask to see how I priced my work. I never fell for it. My proposals were always focused on deliverables – what they would receive for the money they spent. On that basis, good clients can make good judgments.

So why were so many interested in my pricing? Because if they knew I was just starting out and picking on the new guy might drive my price down. It was hard to stick to the deliverables model but figured I’d rather die with a few fair-minded customers than price myself out of business serving zero sum people.

A more current and personal example is my work over the last 15 years in my hometown. I was born and raised (and will shed this mortal coil) in Ashtabula, Ohio, a small, declining, rust-belt town.  

Over time, our foundation has worked with more than a thousand people starting or growing local businesses, trained a couple hundred of them and lent to about 50 who could not get funding from traditional banks.

What we’ve learned that the zero-sum people don’t always understand the win/win concept of “business brings business”. Too many worry that “we don’t need another winery or restaurant or campground – we need more industry”. Great people have spent 25+ years turning our physically gifted county (27 miles of Lake Erie shore, 25 wineries, 18 covered bridges, 8 marinas, 5 public beaches) from its lost industrial heritage into a short-haul destination for tourism.   By attracting tourists, it seems to me it has become easier to attract a better workforce.

Do you run into a lot of zero sum people in your life? If so, give a nice nod of your head, then move on.


Tim McCarthy

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Tim McCarthy

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