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Coopetition: “united we stand, divided we fall” Essay

When in 2004 I spoke in illywords magazine about coopetition, many people thought I had used a neologism. We said, that coopetition is not short on dissociated thinking as it entails being co-operative and competitive at the same time. It seemed to be absurd!

Nowadays it would be hard to conceive a world divided with walls or any kind of barriers. What’s needed instead is bearing into mind and putting into practise the old but nevertheless true motto ”united we stand, divided we fall” when we handle with a good idea that requires a strong commitment together with a considerable outlay of financial and human resources. Professor Yaneer Bar Yam, expert of complex models and President of the New England Complex System Institute said that in the near future ten billion of human beings will be linked one another in an ongoing exchange process able to create a sort of “hyper-individual” whose creative potential is at this point in time still inconceivable.

I am firmly convinced that human evolution should benefit from the mutual exchange even if competitive. Today we celebrate the 7th billion new born. We are not so far from what professor Bar Yem predicted, but I have the feeling that we still face great competition and less cooperation in our way of working and living. Is there any young person or group of young people that is using the concept of coopetition in their life, studies or work? I’d like to hear your voice.

Coopetition is a very interesting term. It brings to mind an aspect of business that you may not align with the seemingly cut-throat nature of the coffee wars. Yet, I found an article I enjoyed in The Economist (again!) recently titled “Head Barista” on that very subject. You would think a person in Andrea Illy‘s position, as captain of the family business that was started in 1933, would be shaking in his Italian leather boots about the rise of Starbucks over the past decade. He is not. He views this as healthy coopetition. He is quoted in Economist article as saying “Eight years ago people talked of coffee as a commodity; now, nobody does”.

In a fast-paced world of drive-through swill, Illy stands out even more today as a distinct brand. In fact, as you can see their “Beauty has a Taste” tagline is perfectly aligned with what their brand represents and the expectation they have set. Illy espresso machines are pieces of art. And, their specially crafted limited-edition Espresso cup sets can fetch as high as several hundred dollars each. Many editions are already highly valued collector items. Why do I care about Illy? Well, I start each and every day with a home-brewed shot of espresso – albeit in a Starbucks Barista machine (if anyone at Illy wants to send me one of theirs to do a comparison test, I’d happily comply). That being said, I like my Starbucks a whole lot too. So, if you love coffee they way I do and know the difference between brews and beans, Illy is simply one of the best.

They come by it honestly as the Economist article reveals, “Mr. Illy is a chemistry graduate – at university he wrote a thesis on the “Quality of Espresso from a Chemical Perspective”. Want to bet his Dad helped him a bit with that paper? The next phase for Illy is to open “Espressamente Illy” cafes worldwide as “advertisements for the brand” as well as remaining focused on sending a clear message that Illy produces coffee “according to the highest ethical standards” in terms of the fair-trade market. Andrea, if you are ever in Toronto, or plan to open an Espressamente Illy here, I’ll be there with cup in hand. Mr. Illy, you make good coffee.


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