One of the most interesting aspects of innovation is not trying to be better than companies that already exist—it’s recognizing how you can be different.
The world is full of products and services that are so similar to each other. I bet you are already thinking of a couple right now.
Competition is fierce, markets are crowded—there’s simply not enough room for everyone to succeed.
So how do the upstarts get a foothold, even win?
What is their secret on a stage that is so noisy, loaded with challengers, and where the leading companies seem to have so many of the market segments already locked up?
The Benefits of Being Different Not Better
Companies are no longer competing on who is better but rather who is different. The need to differentiate from the competition has become more important as companies can no longer rely on being better than their competitors in all aspects of their business.
How did Chipotle make burritos even more appealing?
Or Lemonade tapped into the fastest growing market of an age-old industry like insurance, capturing over 1 million customers in a couple of years—70% of which are under the age of 35.
None of the businesses started with a better product. They simply made customers understand how they were different.
Product differentiation is clarifying the differences between your product and other products on the market.
It’s picking your niche and nailing it. Tapping into the deeply human part of a product experience and getting it right.
You don’t always have to be the best. You simply need people to know how you’re different.
How to Stand Out When You’re Not Better but Different
If you are a company that has a new product, you should focus on how your product can be different from your competitors’. This will make it easier for customers to spot your product and decide whether they want to buy it or not—or most importantly how you solve a problem they have in a way provided by no other.
When companies go big it is great! I still remember my first experience at CitySearch.com in the dot.com boom. We went for a couple of folks charging people $50 a month to put their business on “the Internet” to be a bustling office full of energy, excitement and amazing growth metrics in a few months. It was fantastic!
But scale comes at a cost. More people to serve. More issues to manage. Edge cases to close and customers to keep happy. Keeping all those plates spinning means there’s spaces the main players can’t serve, won’t serve or can’t see because their focus is eaten up by everything they have going on.
The trick for new players to the game is not to try to copy, out compete or beat those that are winning at that moment. It’s to ask the question: what are they missing, who are they leaving behind, not helping or not truly connecting with the job a specific group needs done.
Think how Trello made task management so easy that Atlassian had no choice but to buy them. Their product wasn’t more scalable, secure or sophisticated. It simply made capturing what needed to be done easy, quick and good enough to get started.
Think how Square made swiping credit cards fun for small retailers. Plug a mini device into your mobile device and you’re up and running. Square highlighted how PayPal, Visa and Mastercard was a clunky, expensive offering even for serious businesses. They started with side hustlers, market makers and small retailers yet continue to flourish.
The ability to tune into the truly deep human need and address it differently is an art of great product management. If you’ve seen it, you’ve talked about it. You even tell your friends about it when you experience it.
So I’m here to remind you that you can develop it, and build businesses to serve those special needs not by being better. But by being different—and win big along the way.
Don’t be Afraid to Say, “I’m Not Better. I’m Different.”
I can’t tell you how many times the founders and teams pitch themselves to us at Nobody Studios as, “We’re the AirBnB for….”
“We’re just like but faster, cheaper, better” (and we’re on the blockchain).
All the bells and whistles in the world can’t get me excited about these businesses.
It’s never a problem for these folks to tell me how they are better. What they all struggle with is how they are different.
Similarly I see teams fall into the trap of killing interesting ideas too quickly because “eBay already does that” or “Amazon just launched that feature”.
Sure, these companies are phenomenal businesses, and have earned the right to own the markets they have made. But as sure they have captured a corner of the world that has helped them scale to a global audience, there’s a cohort out there that wants something different. Something they are not doing, in a new and novel way waiting to be uncovered.
The skill is can you find it? Can you be different, not better than the big brands. You don’t have to beat them at their own game, simply solve the problem for the people they’re missing, unresponsive to or haven’t seen.
Catch the Attention of Your Audience by Standing Out
What makes you truly different? It’s really that simple and so hard.
Differentiation is a strategy in which you genuinely are different from competitors and then leverages that notion to effectively attract ideal customers.
Those people that live frustrated lives wishing knowingly or unknowingly that they had the product you are about to build.
Here’s a few tips for how you can get started not being better, being different.
Deliver an Entirely Unique Product or Service
The best part about starting up is embracing how different you could be.
You don’t have to follow the rules the current leaders are playing by. In fact you should be thinking how contrary a play can I make and turn the market on its head.
T-Mobile won by catering to a young, niche audience by offering less commitment and an easy-to-switch-providers promise—a set monthly fees for phone, text and data. Gave people the chance to try out iPhones and send them back at no cost. Everything AT&T and Verizon wouldn’t dream of. Long contracts and lock-ins were their game. T-Mobile called themselves an “UN-carrier”.
Former T-Mobile CEO, John Legere even went as far as streaming a cooking show each Sunday to show how different (and social media minded) he and the customers of their platform could be.
The month before Legere assumed the role of CEO, T-Mobile’s stock price was $9.73 per share. The day he stepped down on April 24, 2020 it reached $90.80. That’s an 833% increase.
How to Recognize the Opportunities in Your Disadvantages
When you’re small you can do things that big companies cannot. It might be high levels of personalization, customer care, engagement or delightfulness.
You can create concierge experiences for everybody—and learn way more about the challenges they are facing and solutions they’re looking for along the way.
AirBnB is a great example of this. The founders would go door to door in New York asking people to sign up for their service, experience it and give them feedback.
“Customers started using the word love in the same sentence as Airbnb. They started telling their families, friends, and co-workers about Airbnb. And eventually the number of reservations starts to go up”, said Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s Co-founder.
Remember what the corner store can offer that the supermarket can’t. Feel local. Real and authentic in a way they can’t.
Learning from Other People’s Mistakes
The best gifts in life are often mistakes. Wrong decisions you made, or choices you took that led you down the wrong path.
They can hurt. Feel tough. Yet they’re only truly wasted when you don’t learn something from them.
Learning from your own mistakes can be costly. Learning from others’ mistakes is free.
Looking into the twists and turns of the companies in your market took. Who did they go after? What worked? What didn’t? What segments did they abandon, avoid or forget?
Startups are like a rubix cube to be figured out along the way. Some choices made however lead businesses down a certain path which they can’t go back upon.
The choice at the moment helped them succeed. But any trade off means other opportunities were left behind.
You can find them, they’re there.
In fact, there are 422 startup failure post-mortems living and breathing on CB Insights. This library of lessons, learnings and mistakes made by founders and teams covers what they wished they had done differently, tripped them up or simply didn’t work out as planned that you can dig through at your own discretion.
I personally think that there’s a product for entrepreneurs to send one of these stories to their phones each day as a reminder to stay focused, aware and iterating. The founder equivalent of WeCroak.
Keep Entrepreneurialism Weird
Remember, anyone can wake up each morning and say they’re going to build the next Facebook, Microsoft or Google only cheaper, faster, better.
Doing something that’s already been done better (while brilliant) is not the best way to change the world—we need to do more differently.
So next time you’re asked what your new idea, product or company is about don’t be afraid to say you aren’t better. Say you’re different!
I bet you’ll be surprised with people’s reaction—and the results.
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