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Chaos is a ladder

If you’ve been watching Game of Thrones, you may recognise this quote from the shows master manipulator Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish.

Being born into a family of poor soldiers in a world where power & resources go to those born into the right noble families, Baelish has used his cunning to stir up chaos in order to advance his position.

Through his scheming, he’s managed to become the King’s financial advisor, then a lord of two of the ‘Seven Kingdoms’, and is currently plotting his way to becoming the next King. He causes chaos- such as wars and murder of key people (all while keeping his hands clean & the suspicion away from him), and then helps those caught up in the chaos solve their problems in exchange for advantageous positions for himself.

He is portrayed on the show as being one of the slimiest villains (in a show with many many villains) as he uses covert tactics, and is hard to pin down as to what he wants, shows no loyalty, and plays all sides- if it will work out in his favour. He is portrayed as the most morally corrupt.

However, in a world where the rules of the game are to assemble the biggest armies, learn to fight well (physically), and try to be born into the right family- he is the character on the show I root for above all the others as he’s one of the only true underdogs not being born into power, and his weapon of choice is his intellect. If I were directing, I surely would have portrayed him the hero of the story!

And then there’s the quote that sums up his life philosophy “chaos is a ladder”.

Now I’m not usually one for quotes. I find most of them to be upbeat feel good fodder with little substance such as “find your passion”. But this one happens to be my favourite quote of all time, and has quite a bit of practical application when it comes to spotting and making the most of opportunities- especially when the odds are stacked against you.

Chaos is when the same old same old doesn’t work anymore.

The order of what was is no longer. Things are now uncertain, and people may be panicked. The great thing about this is that people may be more willing to try new things.

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it can be the order of the day when things are good, and can lead to complacency and clinging to the status quo.

But when the status quo no longer works, it can be a great time to re evaluate things.

Your potential customers may be re-evaluating things too.

Those big, safe, established competitors you had swimming around, making sure nobody would touch you?

We’ll they may not be doing work that works anymore if the winds have changed.

Sure, what you may have been proposing in good times may have felt risky to those you want to court, but now that their house is on fire- what have they got to lose?

If the chaos is really bad, you may seem like their best hope- because what they are doing isn’t working.

Chaos is a time for renewal and change.

And for those who’re the underdogs and little guys, it can be a time of opportunity.

Is someone about to rise from chaos to topple New Zealand’s throne?

If you’re a fellow New Zealander, we all saw the Jacinda effect in action.

For those of you who aren’t, Jacinda Ardern is (as of the last 2 weeks) the Party leader of the main opposition party in New Zealand politics- the Labour Party.

For the last 3 terms, the National Party has been in power, and looked like a shoo in for yet another term, while the Labour Party has been changing its party leader almost as often as I change my underwear (which is daily in case you were wondering).

Again and again they selected conventional choices.

Those who’d been around the longest, stuck to the party tried and true policies of yesteryear, and made the party stakeholders feel safe. They also looked how you’d expect them to look- over 50, white, & male.

While they all ticked the boxes on paper that would enable them to govern somewhat effectively, they all lacked a critical ability that would get them there in the first place- salesmanship.

It’s an unfortunate fact of politics that to be able to govern, you must first be a great sales person and campaigner. Two skills which may not even be related. But it is what it is.

So for years they’ve burned through their list of ‘safe’ candidates, none of which were able to lift the party’s polling numbers.

And then rock bottom arrived- 24%, which was the lowest result since polls began in 1995. All of this just 8 weeks out from the election.

So with the house now ablaze, and having burned through almost all of the conventional options, there was one obvious solution: Jacinda.

And by obvious, I mean she was the obvious choice of the people. The people whose support is needed to win an election.

For a long while she’d been showing up in the ranks of preferred Prime Minister polls.

Despite being a relatively junior member of parliament.

This didn’t go entirely unnoticed by the establishment, who recognised her popularity, and took advantage of this by making her the deputy leader. Actually, I’m not sure why it happened, I’m speculating here, but it makes sense.

And in the weeks leading up to her being sworn in as the new leader, she’d been outranking the actual party leader Andrew Little in the preferred prime minister poll.

So she was clearly the obvious choice.

Only she wasn’t like the rest. She didn’t fit the mold.

Despite being in parliament for coming up to 10 years (so she’s clearly experienced), it’s been said she lacks the experience because she hasn’t achieved enough whilst there.

But I reckon it’s also because she doesn’t look right.

She is younger at 37, female, attractive, and able to have a laugh.

I know from experience that when you don’t look right your credibility comes under considerable scrutiny.
And by not looking right, I mean looking young.

You’re guilty until proven innocent.

You’re not given the benefit of the doubt- you’re perceived to be incompetent until proven with complete certainty otherwise.

It’s one of the last forms of discrimination that society deems to be acceptable.

Being female, attractive, and funny aren’t really issues in and of themselves, but when combined with a youthful appearance, these can add to the associations one may have with incompetence.

But she’s likeable, a great story teller, speaks with conviction, & in fact does come across as credible- which seem to be the primary qualifications needed to win an election these days. Qualifications which none of the others had.

And after only a couple of weeks, the party support jumped up 9% to a total of 33%.

There’s still 6 weeks left, so let’s see how far this goes.

Had the Labour Party not been almost burned to a crisp, I don’t think she’d been given a chance.

But when there’s chaos, what once seemed risky can instead seem like the safest option.

And it usually is.

Alien or a Foreigner? How to know when your idea is too ‘out there’ for customers to understand.

Over here we’re all about helping companies craft their product & service offerings so they’ll have something different to bring to their sea of sameness markets where everyone is more or less doing the same thing. And as an outcome of doing so, they’ll get more visibility, a higher chance of connecting with and being chosen by their ideal customer, be able to charge higher prices (and have their customers more than willing to pay), and more word of mouth (aka free) marketing going on.

So should you really push the boat out creatively and create something so unique that it’s like meeting an alien species for the first time?

Actually no. We’d not recommend you try take people to Mars. But how about Fiji? (or any other semi- exotic location on Earth).

One represents a disorienting confusion where you have no idea what’s going on, and in comparison the other is a pleasant novelty. In the grand scheme of things, Fiji isn’t all that different. There’s still people, water, food, and most of the stuff you’re familiar with- just with slightly different customs, weather, and scenery.

If you’re too different, you’ll likely confuse your customers.

And two things will happen- they’ll either not become customers, or you’ll spend too much time & money educating them to get them to the point of clarity where they feel like they are able to know what they’re actually signing up for.

I’ve got a little rule of thumb to make sure your audience lands in Fiji, & not on Mars: One Jump.

You can take people from where they are now, to one jump away. Not two (or more).

Which means grounding them in a sense of familiarity before telling them how what you do differs from what they already know.

A simple format to do this is :

It’s like —– except with/without ——-

Cars are like horses- only a machine made of metal & faster.

A kiwi is like a furry ball with a beak sticking out of it.

A dream is a movie that plays in your head while you’re sleeping.

What you can’t do is start explaining yourself by using a starting point which your audience doesn’t understand.

This would require 2 jumps (or more).

The first to explain what the thing is that they don’t understand that you need them to understand first before they can take another jump to what your thing actually is. Ugh, too hard.

I had this experience somewhat recently when a friend tried to explain what Blockchain technology was.

He explained that it’s technology to ensure that files that get passed from computer to computer always delete the senders copy, so that the recipient’s version is the only one that exists. This is for security and verification so files don’t either become a game of Chinese Whispers- with the information changing down the line, or to ensure authenticity of the original- as in, the file you have is the only one that exists.

(Actually he didn’t explain it quite like that, but that’s what I got from it).

But although I could understand the words he was saying, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept.

This is because I didn’t have a working knowledge of file sharing in the first place. I’ve never been in the position of seeing how files get distorted when passed down the line, or in what circumstances this would happen. I just didn’t have any awareness that this even happened in the first place. It’s not something I’d ever thought about.

I couldn’t clear one of the jumps.

A similar thing happened a few years back when trying to explain to me what ‘the cloud’ was.

…It’s when your files are stored on remote servers, and not on your computer so they can be accessed from anywhere….Ouch! Servers?

It wasn’t until it was explained like this that I was able to ‘get’ the idea:

The cloud is when your files are stored on the internet instead of your computer. It’s like email. All your emails aren’t stored on your computer are they?- you access them by logging into your email online.

At last!

I was able to understand it explained this way because I already knew what email and the internet were. So it only required one jump to explain that this was a wider category of storage called ‘the cloud’.

Using the One Jump rule, there’s 4 actions you can take if you’re getting the sense you’re in Two Jump land.

1: Explain the second jump.

This should only be considered if you have enough runway or a high enough price point to justify spending a lot more time and money communicating a three part message.

2: Find a jump off point your audience can understand.

This is for when you are able to find a suitable substitution for showing your audience what the current state of reality is.

This is what happened when I was able to understand what ‘the cloud’ was. Talking about servers was substituted for talking about email & the internet.

3: Find an audience who understands your jump off point.

This is about preaching to the choir. In the case of Blockchain technology- the choir I’m not.

In this instance, the choir would be those who have experienced problems stemming from file replication or adjustments as it travels from place to place.

4: If nobody understands your jump off point- jump ship!

Say for instance that you went back in time, before email & the internet even existed to try and explain what ‘the cloud’ was. You wouldn’t be able to even reference the internet. You’d first have to explain what the internet is. And that would be hard enough for people who’d never even experienced that.

In these cases, it’s probably just best for now to leave that idea on Mars.

The product is the marketing

So you’ve got a marketing problem aye?

You’ve worked out that if you can sell more units, courses, projects…whatever, then things will be fixed.
So naturally, the next step may be to seek out ways to get your product or service in front of the right people, with the right message, at the right time.

Depending on what you do, and what method is best for you, that may be networking, social media advertising, or cold calling.

Whatever you choose, most of the time it will work. Eventually it always does.

It’s a numbers game (or so you’re told). If you cast a net wide enough, eventually you’ll catch some fish.

But that can be the trap.

Because you’ll feel like you’re on the right track. And all you gotta do is repeat what you did last time, except times two to get two times the result.

Given enough time & money, you’ll get to where you want to go- just by increasing what has worked in the past.
If however there are others out there offering what you’re offering then there’s gonna be a bit of friction.

And those numbers in that numbers game you’re playing aren’t going to be as good.

You’re gonna find customers who have already with someone else, so they’re not going to go with you.

You’re gonna find those who’ve been in the game longer than you, who have larger customer bases, and brand awareness- so they’ll get more word of mouth and referrals than you.

You’ll find those with more experience under their belt than you, so they’ll be seen as the expert source on the industry you’re in.

You’ll find your ads competing with others ads too, saying things along similar lines. Customers have heard it before, so they’ll just tune it out.

And this is why your product (what you’re offering to your chosen market) really is the foundation of your marketing.

If you have a product that no one else has- and you don’t even need to get radical here, just different enough so that you don’t seem to customers like all the rest (and they actually have to prefer it over the alternative at least in some cases, but that’s another story for another day), then your advertising is going to start to be more noticeable- because you’re not saying what the others are saying. You’re not like them. So you won’t need to spend as much to get the result you’re after.

You may also start noticing less of “we already have a (what it is you have/or do)”. Which means less instant rejection, and potential to open up more business relationships.

And then there’s the free marketing. Oh yes.

Firstly there’s the news. And the name gives itself away. It’s called the news because they deal with things that are well…new. What you now have is new now isn’t it? And this is all free. So less money you have to spend on advertising.

Being in the news makes you look like the expert, and is effectively an outside endorsement for what you’re doing. Both these things mitigate people’s uncertainty around doing business with you, increasing the chances that they’ll go ahead.

People also notice things that are different, and make their way into conversation. Giving you free word of mouth marketing.

When you’re in demand and a party of one, you are able to charge higher prices. Why? Because customers can’t walk away and get what you’re offering elsewhere. You’re it. Else they can settle for the alternative.

So what are you gonna do?

Push, push, push, spend, spend, spend until you make your numbers? And repeating this forever?

Or investing time into crafting a hot knife that slices through butter?

I’m not the same as my competition- I’m different. But do your customers agree?

It can often be difficult to see your own situation clearly. You see things at 100x more detail than customers do, and have a different perspective. Plus you know what to look for, and are able to easily evaluate between the different service providers.

It’s like when you look in the mirror and see you’ve got a couple of pimples forming, plus a bit of a double chin at certain angles- but nobody else notices. They think you look great, and instead notice how straight your teeth are, because that’s what they notice isn’t right with them.

But most of the time customers aren’t thinking too much about choosing who to go with- they just want their problems sorted. Or it doesn’t matter too much and they just go with what ‘feels right’ in the moment without much thought. They aren’t evaluating you the same way you evaluate yourself and your industry.

Given the different points of view, it can often be difficult to explain to clients that they’re looking a little bit too alike to their competitors. It can sound as though I’m describing a situation that applies to others, but not them.

So how can you tell if this may be you (even if you don’t know it)?

How can you see things like a customer would?

I was trying to explain this concept yesterday while with a photography client.

And as each photograph is ‘custom’ it can make it even more difficult to discern the feeling of ‘sameness’ a customer might get- cause none of them are exactly the same.

I realised how pointing out how 2 different sets of photographs that are different, but asserting they look the same would be just confusing as f***.

So instead I decided to illustrate this by showing this effect by asking my client to be a customer, and choose who to go with in an industry they’re unfamiliar with.

We selected plumbing.

We fired up our trusty uncle Google, and scanned through each of the listings on the first 2 pages in quick succession.

I don’t think we stayed on a single site for longer than a minute.

Whilst the specific wording was a bit different on each, the layouts not exactly the same, and the list of services and offers not exactly the same, the overall impression was the same.

Without fail, they all said the following things:

-How many years of experience they had.
-Areas they service regions, suburbs etc.
-We can help with any problem- no job too big or too small.
-Here’s our list of services and prices:
-We respond quickly
-We are reliable, and people trust us.

In addition to this, most of the sites where white, with blue flourishes.

These websites told you no more than “I’m a plumber, and do exactly what you’d expect I’d do. Call me”.

Which is all well and good to a certain degree. You know you need a plumber, so you look online to find one, and those in the list have a chance of being chosen.

In fact, after being overwhelmed by this decision, you’ll probably feel indecision, and you’d probably just do what most people do- and that’s ask for a recommendation from a friend.

Being chosen will depend on you having a large enough following, so that you’ll have the best possible chance to be recommended. The more people who have worked with you in the past, the more chances you have. Being good at what you do is a minimum expectation, and not something to necessarily rave about- although i you do bad work it goes without saying that you won’t get recommended.

And who does this way of buying benefit?

Those who are already well established- despite you being just as worthy as them for the job.

But let’s say for a minute that you look up Plumbers on Google and there’s one there that instead of saying something along the lines of “24/7 Plumber- Servicing the (your town)Region” it said “We fix leaking pipes”, and if you had a leaking pipe, that listing would probably be the one you’d gravitate towards.

Specialisation is one way to stand out from the wallpaper of your competition, but isn’t the only thing to think about. Point is- if you’re saying something different in a way that resonates more strongly with your customers than what others are saying, you then become the obvious choice of who to go with, and customers may not even consider anyone else.

So, after this, he was starting to get the idea, but I was still sensing a bit of doubt- after all, photography isn’t like plumbing. Plumbing is just plumbing. It’s all the same isn’t it? You call up, get your leak fixed. End of. Right?

Enter: phase 2.

So then we selected from this bunch what we thought were the top three most generic sites that we felt typified what all the Plumbers were saying, and told him to call them up.

We made up a bit of a story about a blocked toilet that wouldn’t flush, then asked the bog standard questions (when, how much, yada yada) before getting to the meat of the matter: We found you on Google, and we’ve been to a few other sites, but not sure what we should be looking for in a plumber…

And you know what? All the plumbers we called thought they were by far the best, and enumerated all the reasons why.

Because they didn’t see things the way we did. They thought they were different.

Then the crux of the matter- getting him to see that the same thing was happening in his market.

We followed the same process and looked up local photographers.

We quickly scanned the sites and noted overall patterns.

Of which there was quite a few:

-Having a similar list of services offered; wedding, portraits, landscapes, babies, corporate/events.
-Having similar prices.
-Saying something along the lines of “You should hire me because I’m passionate about capturing memories- it’s about the people”

On top of this stuff, there were also common themes running through the collection of photographs as a whole- even though they were all technically custom and ‘different’.

-Similar subject matter was taken in the shots; the wedding dress shot, jumping in the air at the beach, babies shot inside ‘stuff’, close-ups of hands and feet, etc.
-Similar photographic styles; in wedding photography there’s a warm yet mid range tone palette in pastel type tones. There’s not too much contrast or chiaroscuro, there’s a bit of lens flaring with the suns glare featuring quite heavily. There’s also a ‘twee’ country bumpkin wholesome vibe- not dramatic, or energetic, or edgy, or other vibe.There’s heavy use of mid range shots in front of a simple rustic flat outdoor background, typically with 2 tones- straw tone grass, with mountains etc.

After first seeing this play out from the perspective of a customer in a foreign industry (plumbing) he was then able to see this pattern in his own industry (photography).

So go on-give it a go!

Go Google the industry category that best fits what you do.

Go through and note all the similarities.

What things are you all saying?

What are you all offering?

Who are you all speaking to?

How do you all look?

You can also do this for any part of your business. You can gather together a selection of ads across your industry, an audit of places and mediums you use to promote your business, or even looking at the characteristics of the people you hire.

Are you all looking and sounding the same? And does doing so serve a purpose?

Because while you’re looking and sounding the same, no one will notice you.

And if it’s harder to get noticed, you’ll have to spend more, and work harder and longer just to be seen.

Do you have the time and money to outwork and outspend others in your market in order to be the go-to choice for customers?

Thought not.

And if you decide to do your own thing in your own way, you won’t have to worry about what your competitors are doing.

You can ignore them.

When in Rome speak Romanian…uh, I mean Italian.

Have you been somewhere, and just felt like you didn’t fit in?

Like you’ve got no way of orienting yourself around a certain bunch of people. You can sense that there’s a set of unspoken rules and norms- but you’re not sure what they are. You may feel paralysed and not sure of what to say. You feel like you’re constantly saying the wrong thing (without knowing what it may have been), because you notice people’s stiff fidgety body language, & people’s eyes darting around as they speak to you- trying to find an excuse to exit.

Some would call this culture shock, but it can happen around those in your own city or neighbourhood, and around those with the same ethnic makeup as you.

I had such an experience yesterday that got me thinking a lot about times and place I have felt like this, and lost a bit of sleep trying to figure out why this was.

I had an old friend announce she was coming to town in a couple of week’s time, and wanted to get the old gang together for a shared pot luck dinner (we were all friends at high school). Sounds innocent enough. But then there were the words that sent me into an instant panic: BYO Dish (Vegan friendly welcome).

Which was strange given I think it’s pretty weird that it’s normal in our society to kill and control other creatures for our own purposes. I’m all on board with Veganism.

But it wasn’t what the word meant- it’s what it represented.

It reminded me that I was going to be attending a dinner with a bunch of people who are morally superior (in my head at least)- an intimidating prospect for me given I’m not one to shy away from unpopular, and at times politically incorrect opinions if I feel it to be my truth, or that the factual evidence proves otherwise. I can’t just go along to get along with things that I don’t believe to be true. It feels false and slimy.

It’s not just this, it’s the whole scene. Domesticated civility with everyone’s partners, healthy meals, the congratulatory discussing the ticking off of society dictated life milestones (the degree, the OE, the marriage, the house, the kids etc), ugh. It all just feels a bit too Stepford Wives for me.

I feel like my presence is offensive to the group, and taints their crisp white sanitised soiree with vulgarity.

I feel judged.

And when I really think about it, I tend to have a natural aversion to anything sounding a bit too goodie-two-shoes for the same reason. Clean diet and exercise products, ‘supportive’ and ‘caring’ events, ethical fair-trade silk made by Japanese virgins. And of course Vegan food.

What’s this got to do with business?

In the same way the word ‘Vegan’ stirs up feelings of cultural alienation in me- despite actually thinking Veganism is a good idea, the words you are using in your business, or even in your entire industry may be alienating some of your customers.

But consider the reverse- with just words alone, you may be able to speak to a part of your audience that no one else is speaking to, if you can find a way to speak to them on their terms.

That alone could make your competition irrelevant.

It happened to me- I was changed through the power of words.

If there’s two things I thought I’d never do, it was going to see a counsellor, and getting nutrition advice.
For years I just figured these things just weren’t for me.

They talk about ‘finding balance’ (what does that even mean?!), ‘nourishment’ (isn’t that just eating healthy, but with a smothering overly attentive mothering spin to it? Uh, that sounds kinda overbearing. I don’t want things to be too serious), talk of depression or anxiety (hey, we all have ups and downs and that’s normal right?), and I didn’t quite get the logic how talking could help cure me- I talk all the damn time anyway. Plus, I’ve been a ‘media approved’ size most of my life, eat okay most of the time, and therefore don’t feel any pressure to go on a diet.

It just didn’t seem like something I even needed, or even if I did, it came across a bit woo woo that I felt I wouldn’t get anything out of it.

It wasn’t until it was put in my language that I even considered going to see a health coach (for both mental & physical health).

“If you’re not able to get to sleep, and you’ve tried everything else why not just give things a go?” was how it was put.

Fair enough. Can’t argue with that.

Then when I got there, we discussed my situation a bit, before I started asking questions about how it actually worked. How was all this talking stuff supposed to cure my sleep?

“Well, we can develop behaviours and ways of thinking when we’re under stress, but these can become habits that stick once we’re no longer in the stressful situation from which they came. So we need to retrace your steps back to when some of your more unhelpful habits came about so that we can pick apart the situation back then, to really understand your habits, then replace these with other behaviours…it appears you’ve got a whole lot of these going on which are stressing you out, and not letting your mind shut down at night to go to sleep. Plus there’s a few things you could be consuming less of to help here too.”

Sounds logical. Let’s do it!

So I did. And my sleep was greatly improved.

But if it were never explained in a way I could understand, I would never have done it.

And who knows, maybe there’s a whole bunch of others like me out there, who would otherwise be interested in such a service if it were only explained in our language. If there is, a company that was able to do so may very well be able to tap an entire market that no one else is touching. And they wouldn’t have to compete with others offering a similar service.

All it would take is choosing to use a few different words.

Been feeling a bit jealous & tempted to copy what someone else has done?

One thing I get asked a lot ( although not nearly as often as I’m asked about my age-given I’m trapped inside the body of a 17 year old girl ), is whether I’m worried about people stealing my ideas.

Well, I feel something when this happens, but it’s not quite worry I’m feeling.

I feel pity, mixed with what I assume my Dad must have felt when I was young when he’d like to warn me against doing something, but knew I wasn’t gonna listen- so instead told me to do whatever it was I shouldn’t do just so I’d learn the harsh lesson for myself. This of course is followed by the ‘I told you so’ satisfaction. Some would call it karma- not that I believe in that.

In this case, the sense of satisfaction comes from knowing that if someone tries to copy what I’ve done, then it’s likely to not work for them.

But I know why some people do it, and I truly feel for them.

The seed may have been planted a while ago. Before the idea of starting a business was even ideated. Because we live in a culture where we hear stories through the media on a daily basis about others’ rapid success, and a quick scroll through Facebook may echo this with a collection of snippets your friends life wins and highlights.

Then there’s the daily stories and advertisements about the new thing or technique (whatever it happens to be at the time)that’ll cure all your business woes in a flash. It kinda reminds me of the fad diet industry.

Feeling like your own achievements aren’t living up to the reality everyone else seems to be experiencing, you may be tempted to pop one of those miracle diet pills- which in the case of your business means copying someone else.
I’m guessing that most people would feel pretty icky about doing this, and would rather not have to feel like they’ve stooped so low. But sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures- or so the justification goes.

It’s a bit sad really.

On the other hand, as a creative, you sometimes can’t help feeling sometimes that justice has been served when someone tries to steal your ideas. Cause if you bring your original flair to the party, often you’ll face a bit of backlash and resistance in getting your ideas accepted. Sometimes hate. And mean words.

You’ll be told you’re not doing things properly, and feeling like you’re battling everyone around you in order to create the change you want to see.

But then you get there. And you find your former critics, and other voyeurs showing up to try and emulate what you’ve done. And it can feel goood.

But the best revenge happens when you see what happens when they try to rip off your ideas- most of the time it falls completely flat. That’s right- it doesn’t work at all.

Because you can give people a car, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to drive it.

Or how it works for that matter.

There may be things that are going on under the hood so to speak that may not be visible to others.

So whilst some may attempt to rip off some of the more visible elements of what you’re doing, they often aren’t able to grasp the context, or the ‘why’ behind it, and mis-apply things that on the surface look like a carbon copy of what you’re doing.

Back in the day, I used to run a couple of bars. It was just after the recession hit, and almost overnight the punters in the area more than halved.

But this was okay. We didn’t need to have our business halved. We just had to make sure that people came to us instead of going anywhere else.

It wasn’t too tricky. Once the level of street traffic plummeted, most of the venues shat their pants and relaxed their standards to widen their potential customer base. This was a great opportunity for us to do the opposite- which was a no brainer given that the whole experience of going to a bar is about the other people in the bar. It’s a social thing.

Anyway, one of the bars had quite an old crowd (average age of around 40) compared to the surrounding areas, and we worked out that they were coming to shake off their feeling of responsibility by indulging in a bit of childish stupidity- which they normally wouldn’t in day to day life.

So we just doubled down on it.

One night, we got a giant mechanical bull. We drew quite a crowd, and also drew the attention of the nearby bars who came to grab the details of the bull hire people.

A few weeks later we saw another bar doing their own bull night (surprise surprise).

But it all it did was draw people out of the bar to outside, made those who’d drank too much to throw up, and attracted the unwanted attention of the police.

It didn’t work for them as they had a different audience. They had a younger audience, who frequently pre-loaded, and often had issues with drunken behaviour anyway, and this only served to make things worse.

On top of that, it made it into a juvenile raucous fest, which only served to turn the best customers off.

Same action, different result.

Are you sure they’re not faking it?

Come on? We’ve all seen that annoying couple on Facebook who post daily snaps gushing all about how happy they are, only to find out later their relationship is on the rocks.

Or that person who humble brags about their exercise routine, and how healthy they eat- with daily photos of their running route, and meal pics. All the while their friends are politely offering support by the way of ‘likes’, which only serves to prop up their fragile self esteem by way of validation.

And if you spend enough time online, you may see thousands of ‘I’m perfect, & my life is awesome’ messages every day, and feel defective by comparison.

But the truth is that many people (especially online) are full of it.

Most of us experience daily frustrations and disappointments, but rarely do we want to broadcast these to the world.

This effect is probably worse when it comes to business where we could worry that admitting to screwing up could affect our professional credibility.

So if you see someone who appears to be doing really well, before rushing in to emulate what they appear to be doing; just bear in mind that they might be faking it.

Knowing the difference between ‘because of’ vs ‘in spite of’.

I’m rather fond of treating myself to KFC every once in a while (I’ve even taken a couple of boys on dates there- just to lighten the mood and make things a little less serious).

With Just 3 little letters everyone knows I’m talking about the place with the delicious greasy chicken.

Given there’s over 15, 000 KFC outlets, in 118 countries, you could say they’re not doing too badly.

But do their 3 letters help them?

Sure, everyone seems to know what these letters mean, but is it because this letter combo is somehow intrinsically mouth watering or memorable? Why not say HNP?

Yes, I know. KFC stands for ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’. But if they initially named their business HNP (or KFC off the bat for that matter), would anyone be able to remember the name?

I’m writing this, and I’ve already forgotten what the 3 letters I suggested were just a second ago.

If you were to start a business tomorrow, and you had to come up with a name for it, would you look to large successful companies for inspiration? Companies who often have random letter combination names?

If you did, not only would it not help you- it’d probably hurt you.

Imagine someone came into your new store to buy something, and had the best experience of their lives. So much so that they want to tell everyone about it.

“Hey everybody!!!!…I had the best day ever, of my life, all because I went to HD..T, er, HTD?, or is the an ‘N’ in there somewhere? HN..T?…”

You get the idea- letter combination names just aren’t very memorable.

So why do the successful established companies use them?

For a start, many of these companies were famous with meaningful names before changing to their 3 letter initialled names. Kentucky Fried Chicken, International Business Machines, etc.

There could have been many reasons why they decided to change to a 3 letter name such as they may no longer do what is described in their full name (if KFC stopped selling chicken for example), people may have called them by the letter name anyway, and just decided to make it the official name, or maybe they just saw someone else doing it and decided to follow suit.

It may not be something that helps them, but with their level of recognition they’re built up over the years it’s probably not going to hurt them too much.

They’re successful in spite of their names- not because of them.

If you’re green-eyeing someone else’s name, ads, website…whatever, can you be sure that it is even a good exemplar to model yourself after in the first place?

Chances are, it may not be.

What about not reinventing the wheel and all that?

Yeah, good point.

Why make mistakes yourself when you’re able to learn from others- and not make them yourself?

Hmmm, learning. I think that’s the key word here.

If you’re attempting to learn from others successes with a learning mindset, you’ll likely break things down a bit to identify why something someone else has done was a hit. You may find that certain aspects apply to your situation, and other don’t. You may also decide that certain things don’t quite fit what you’re looking to achieve- maybe once you get a feel for why something is working for someone else, you may realise that it isn’t going to fit with your goals, or that you may apply a few principles but modify a few bits and pieces to better suit your audience, business type, or situation.

As a result, you’ll naturally be able to make use of the inspiration you’ve gained from others in the right way.

But if you’re reacting to what others are doing in haste, and wanting to directly lift what someone else has done, you’ll likely find you’re doing so with a mindset of jealousy, fear, or insecurity.

And I think we can all agree that a business strategy based on your emotions in the moment is not likely to be cohesive or effective.

What does it look like when your business is on the losing side of competition?

You may be aware of what more obvious forms of competition look like that may be limiting business growth- there’s lots of similar businesses offering somewhat similar services to the same types of customers, at roughly similar prices. They may be describing themselves the same way, and performing activities in their businesses in roughly similar ways.

This often comes with these businesses experiencing customers shopping around for the lowest price, and a feeling of a lack of progress despite lots of effort to improve the businesses offerings, and a flurry of activity to market their products and services.

But what if you’re experiencing these symptoms, but there doesn’t appear to be that many other similar businesses to yours? Is your problem still competition? Or is it something else?

If competition isn’t the source of your symptoms, there could be a range of different causes such as not explaining what you do clearly (and are therefore not converting your inquiries to customers), or there being no demand for what you do in the first place- to name 2.

There could be plenty of other causes of these symptoms, but to narrow down the list, we’ll explore 6 different forms that competition can take.

1: There’s regulations in place that limit your ability to compete.

An example of this may be services the Government provides. For instance- schools. Sure, there’s private schools out there that you pay to go to instead of public schools, but they still have to follow the curriculum.

These private schools mostly compete with free public schools on factors of extra attention from teachers with smaller class sizes, or more resources.

The content and form that schools must take however is somewhat more constrained. The Government mandates that certain information & subjects must be delivered in schools.

I’m sure in these times where mandatory schooling provides little practical value to the students in achieving employment outcomes, or other crucial life skills (outside of perhaps learning to read and write, and basic math)- that some form of alternative schooling would be desirable to enough people to make it a viable business.

But to be able to do so would require you to not only create and sell your education service, but get laws changed around what can be taught. And we all know the government would be slow to get on board with such an idea, as it would be controversial, and would disturb voters. It would almost require generational social change for a proposition to become popular with enough voters before they passed such a motion.

In which time, your alternative school business wouldn’t be able to get off the ground.

But hey, it’s not all doom and gloom:

Instead, you’d have to look at alternatives such as having a short course outside of regular school hours, or delivering the mandatory components alongside what you really want to deliver.

And if you’re lucky, maybe the student results from your alternative program are superior to a degree that it starts to change public perception of the value of alternative education- and hurry up the process to get education requirements changed.

2: You need 2 sides of a market to function, but picking off both from your competition at the same time is almost impossible.

A prime example is Trademe. On one side, there’s sellers, and on the other side is buyers.

Over the years there’s been several attempts to create an alternative site to rival Trademe, but all attempts have either bombed spectacularly, or limped along slowly until death. (Two examples being Zillion which had at one point a membership of 60K & Rich Lister backed Wheedle).

So how did they try to lure people away?

With lower fees.

But this was meaningless without many people on their sites selling items. So the customers came, left, and didn’t come back.

And why weren’t there many people selling things?

Because there wasn’t any customers.

Chicken and egg.

But Trademe didn’t have these issues when they started because there was no direct alternative.
There were garage sales, community noticeboards, and the Trade and exchange magazine which you could get at your local dairy.

So at the time, Trademe- even without a mass of buyers and sellers on both sides, was still an improvement on what was currently available.

Clearly trying to be them (only cheaper) isn’t going to work, so what will?

I’m not going to speculate anything here with certainty as there are many factors to determine whether an idea has merit, but a few avenues to look into came to mind:

-Are you able to pick off a single segment where you’ll be able to simply register sellers? Possibly one where the fees are also high?

-Would creating an offline trading event have any merit?

-Is there something that can be traded that Trademe doesn’t currently touch?

-We often don’t have a lot of product choice in New Zealand- being such a small market and all. Could you create a site that sells ‘the best of’ a certain type of product that you’re hunted all over the world for? (and curated your collection of items). Say, best chocolates and sweets from all over the world? Could the search criteria instead be by country?

I’m not saying any of these ideas are good, so it’s best to evaluate them properly (link).

3: When you need experience and certain credentials to win jobs & clients, but to get experience you need to win said jobs & clients.

The old catch 22.

Many of us may have experienced this after graduating from university and needing to land our first professional jobs.

We couldn’t get those ‘entry level’ jobs because they required 1-2 years experience which we didn’t have.

So instead we found more basic roles in the companies we wanted to end up in- and waited for a more desired position to open up, we volunteered at non-profits, or interned to get the experience, used our connections to get a free pass, or gave up and found an easier position to obtain.

But there are some situations where it’s more difficult to ‘start small’, and build up from there.

And that’s when there’s a big experience jump between where you are now, and where you want to be- and there’s either few, or no stepping stones in between.

The stakes may also be high.

This could happen in situations in between the small business market, and the large business market if you’re performing a critical function.

For instance, you may make marketing videos for small businesses to help explain their services on their websites, but if you want to create large scale advertisements for larger businesses with big budgets, you’re not going to be given these kind of jobs. There’s plenty of businesses already producing these larger scale advertisements, that you likely wouldn’t be given these opportunities with the experience you have thus far. Trying harder doing what you’re already doing isn’t going to get you to where you want to go.

A big detour would be needed away from what you’re currently doing to where you want to go.

So are there any ways to get from here to there?

-You could do the experienced professional version of interning and create spec work to showcase the type of and prove that you are able to do the type of work required in the bigger budget market.

-You could even volunteer your services to a non profit to get some real professional experience under your belt.

The risk however, is that you’ll still find plenty of competition in the bigger budget market.

You’re still going to need a bit of something extra so that you can compete effectively. Will it be a unique specialisation? A new method of doing things that no one else can do that will convince customers to take a chance on you despite having less experience?

We’ll be publishing an article in a few weeks about how to generate effective ideas, then evaluate these, so we’ll post the link here later.

4: You need a significant amount of money to compete effectively as there is a lot of infrastructure, materials, and $$$ to pull off your idea.

Someone once told you to follow your passion, and when you really thought about it, you realised there’d be nothing you’d love more than to create the next Disneyland.

Why of course!- it’s the happiest place on earth.

Having big dreams where you don’t limit your goals to what you think you’d be able to achieve with what skills and resources you have now is certainly admirable.

And there are plenty of places around the world without a Disneyland that people may want to visit.

But even with some generous financial backing from Daddy Dearest, on top of the savings you’ve managed to accrue throughout the years, it’s just not enough to build that roller coaster higher than 3 meters – let alone any other rides and attractions.

You’ve got the punters excited, and frenzied. People from all around the country are coming to the opening of ‘New Zealands answer to Disneyland’.

Inside the gates the disappointed themepark goers eye the worlds smallest roller coaster, a lot of grass (because you know- you’re planning on building other rides late), and a hot dog stand. You’re sitting there in a puddle unable to move with your legs bound together with tape as you’ve chosen to make the themeparks’ mascot a mermaid (and hey, it saved you a bit of coin too filling this important role yourself, as well as doing away with a proper costume).

Yeah, okay, I’m getting a bit ridiculous here.

But needless to say, the whole experience wasn’t quite what people were expecting. The reviews in the paper the next day describe your theme park as a real life version of Banksy’s Dismaland (if you’re not sure what that is check this out https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/20/banksy-dismaland-amusements-anarchism-weston-super-mare).

Are you doomed to fail if the market you want to compete in requires significant cash or other resources to compete effectively?

Yes- but there are alternatives you can look at if you’re prepared to be practical.

No doubt there’s a lot of allure for a lot of people of going to Disneyland. It’s a place you can go that is almost entirely fictional, and fantastical, and unlike many experiences we have in day to day life.

While you may not have the funds to create the next Disneyland, I’m sure there’s plenty of ways you could give someone an experience that takes them out of reality, and into a world of your creation.

There’s those mazes where you go at night where costumed zombies jump out at you whilst making your way through, or you could create a cafe where everything is huge to make you feel like you’ve shrunk. The options are endless!

5: You need significant brand awareness to compete effectively- which you may not be able to get as someone else already holds all the attention.

We’ve all drank Coke and Pepsi.

But one day, when the sugar goes to your head and activates parts of your brain that other soda’s just can’t reach- you’re hit with a moment of mathematical clarity…

Aluminium cans cost around 5c-10c, a dollop of Cola flavouring amounts to roughly 15c, and water…well that part’s free.

If I can sell a can of this for even just $2 that’s $1.75 profit. And with more than 1.9 billion servings consumed worldwide per day of just one Cola brand alone, you figure you’d be rich even if you’d only be able to sell just 0.001% of what they sell.

How hard could it be? There’s only 2 main brands- certainly it should be easy enough to compete with such low levels of competition out there you think to yourself.

But then you think back to the early 90s when Virgin Cola launched onto the scene. Whatever happened to them?

They made it onto the shelves at many supermarkets for a short period of time. You remember buying it at one point.

Well, one of the big boys went to the supermarket bosses and asked for it to be removed from the shelves- and paid them handsomely for their favour.

But why were they able to do so?

Well, because these 2 brands have high brand awareness and demand that no one else can match. From a retailers point of view, giving up precious shelf space for an unknown is just a risk without a good chance of the same return that they can get with the existing brands.

But how did it get to the situation where there’s just 2 dominant brands in the first place? Plenty of other product categories may have 3, 4, 5, 6 main brands.

Let’s travel back in time…

Around the time of Coke’s founding, and the next few decades following, many Cola ‘imitator’ companies popped up to tap into this growing market.

Many of these companies used the term ‘cola’ in their names to signify to customers the type of beverage they were selling- as customers understood what this was.

But as the inventor of carbonated cola beverages, Coke sued many of these imitator companies for trademark infringement.

One such company was Royal Crown Cola- often thought of as the #3 Cola brand in the US.

They saw their sales plunge after they were required to take the word ‘cola’ off their name, leading to a huge reduction in sales as consumers were no longer aware that their product was in fact a cola beverage.

So why was Pepsi able to keep the word ‘cola’ on their product?

This I’m unsure about as there’s not much information about it, but there are reports floating around that Pepsi decided to get in first and sue Coke for monopolising the cola market, and later courts ruled that Coke didn’t own the word ‘cola’. So perhaps, they were able to survive by fighting the trademark infringement.

Over time, by suppressing competition, a consumer would purchase Coke more often than any other cola brand, which leads to continued consumption of Coke- and our minds tend to think of Coke when we want a Cola soft drink. Which leads to a snowball effect when people in turn ask for Coke by name instead of ‘cola’ or other alternatives.

Pepsi was able to make up some ground by targeting niches, and by using heavy price based promotion during the times of the Great Depression- making them a viable #2 brand.

But what if Coke hadn’t invented the Cola category? Would we all be drinking Pepsi or some other brand?

That’s highly possible.

In fact, in Pakistan, Pepsi is the dominant brand- far outstripping sales of Coke. While Coke got there first, they pulled out of the market after a few years; after which Pepsi entered- with Coke not re-entering for a few years later.

Early on, Pepsi decided to tie their brand to their national sport (cricket) through sponsorships- giving huge visibility to the brand.

So how could you compete effectively if faced with this form of competition?

Once again, the answer lies in offering something else to the market instead of a copy-cat product or service, or by targeting markets that the dominant brands don’t cater to.

There’s 2 good examples of this in the Cola category.

In the mid 50s, the makers of Royal Crown cola produced a sugar free alternative for the mass market- this was before Coke and Pepsi had their diet alternatives.

There had been a few other sugar free alternatives prior to this, but Royal Crown’s attempt was considered the first to be both almost calorie free & tasted fairly similar to the full sugar version.

They quickly became the #4 cola brand (behind, Coke, Pepsi, & their regular RC Cola), and by the late 60s the RC cola company had captured 10% of the market- and was poised for further growth as the sugar free segment was becoming increasingly popular.

While their approach worked well, unfortunately they caught the attention of the sugar industry.

And so it began- the sugar industry searched for legal ways to thwart the diet drinks category, and studies were commissioned that suggested a link between Cyclamate (the sweetener used in diet drinks at the time), & cancer- despite scientists now regarding this ingredient as safe at very low levels.

But the damage was done. The media caught wind of this ingredient, and soon consumers everywhere were spooked, and almost overnight, the market for diet soda’s dried up.

The second example of an alternative cola brand taking on the dominant 2 is Future Cola- produced by the Wahaha company, in China.

It has captured around 12-15% of the cola market by targeting the rural areas- which the dominant 2 brands didn’t have a presence in. It is also helped along by its patriotic marketing- being known as “Chinese people’s own cola”.

6: There are more providers for a given product or service than there are customers.

This is the type of situation you may picture when you think of highly competitive markets.

There’s hundreds, or maybe thousands of businesses offering up products and services that customers may have trouble telling the difference between.

Given consumers see the alternatives as roughly similar, it’s hard for them to make a choice. So they often default to choosing based on price, or whoever is closest.

Think gas stations, or supermarkets. You’ll usually just go to the one that’s either the cheapest or the closest.
The problem with this is that it leaves almost no profit. And sometimes none at all.

Sometimes this can work if the company is large enough, as what it lacks in profit per item sold- it makes up for it when selling in high volumes.

But for smaller businesses- this can be a crippling problem.

This happens often in service businesses that sell either to individual customers, or small businesses.

Often, these businesses rely on personal expertise and require significant amounts of human labour to execute. With lower purchasing abilities of these customers, it provides a lower ceiling to both prices and volumes sold (they’d often not be need for ongoing services, so one off jobs may be the norm, increasing marketing costs).

The natural size of these businesses is often smaller too, and many of these businesses struggle to grow larger.

Given extra costs start to add up in the form of management & administrative personnel to manage larger customer numbers- it can often push their prices higher, which can result in less sales.

In addition to these two factors, there can also be low barriers to starting these types of businesses as in many cases all you need to start is your time, and a bit of effort- meaning many have piled in to the market. In the worst cases, there can be more people willing to do the work than customers wanting the work.

Examples of these types of businesses are Graphic Designers, Photographers, and House Painters.

The same can also be the case of product businesses where the cost and ease of manufacturing is low.

The good news…

This form of competition is often the easiest to get out of.

There’s already significant customer awareness and demand for these products and services- which is a great place to start.
Just small tweaks to what you’re offering can often be enough to get market attention, and more customers.

A common way of doing this is by specialising in a particular type of customer.

This way, you’ll be able to take advantage of the significant awareness and demand for your particular type of product or service, whilst marking yourself as different and superior to that of your more generalist competition- in the eyes of your target audience anyway.

It can also lead to efficiencies in your work as you may be able to standardise many parts of your service if all your customers are rather similar, leading to higher profits.

Notice anything?

That no matter what type of competition you’re facing, the solution is to forget about competing head on, and instead find an area where you can compete- a place where your competition isn’t.

Are you working your butt off but not seeing the results you’d like in your business?

If this sounds like you, then no doubt you’ve been putting in the long hours, and trying everything possible to make your business a success.

You’ve also probably done your homework, and looked into solutions, as well as asked those who’ve been there done that for tips.

What we find is that many business owners are either stumbling across information, or getting advice from other business owners along the lines of ‘get out there’, ‘network’, ‘connect and interact with others online’, ‘do social media’ etc

And then there’s the list of things to do inside your business to oil up the machine; ‘hire more people’, ‘delegate’, ‘get software to automate your process’… and so on.

I’m sure none of this sounds foreign to you.

But what’s wrong with these things?

Well, nothing is necessarily wrong with any of them.

The people recommending these things may be well intended. They may have seen for themselves the wonders a specific activity has done for their business, and want you to have the same results too.

But you tried, and maybe it didn’t work out that way for you.

So what’s going on here? Have you just been dealt a hand of bad luck?

Of course not!

Providing there’s successful examples out there already for the type of business you want to create- it can all be achieved (albeit with far less effort than you’re currently putting in now). We know this because if other successful businesses are out there, that means that there’s proven customer demand. Can’t tick this off the list at this point? Then this may very well be why what you’re doing is failing to produce results. If you cleared this first hurdle, then read on.

On to the second hurdle- your expectations.

Are they in line with reality? Have you given things enough time to work? It’s often said that you need to be exposed to several repetitions of a message before it sinks in. You only ran your ads once before deciding they don’t work? This may be why. Or maybe you went to one networking event, and didn’t get anyone wanting to buy your products then and there. Well it takes time to develop relationships and trust.

Right- back to the list…

For a start, one of the biggest problems with the advice you may be getting is not the advice itself, but ALL the items on the list. There’s just way too many things you feel like you need to be doing. So if you’ve been extra diligent, and tried to put into action everything all at once- it’s no wonder it isn’t working the way you want it to. You’d be spread thinner than the stingy serving of mayo on my dry maccas chicken burger today. What’s that saying? If you try catch 2 rabbits you’ll catch none. Plus you must be exhausted!

Now, if you want to proudly parade around your ‘busy-ness’ as a bit of a self esteem booster- then good for you. Keep doing what you’re doing and stop reading now cause I’m gonna suggest how to become a whole lot less busy (for now at least).

Okay- the big secret: Stop doing everything except for a few activities that are most likely to be the most successful. In doing this you’ll be able to do those few things well instead of a lot of things so-so.

Yeah I know. Kinda obvious. I realise I’m sounding like a bit of a dick right now.

The bit that’s trickier however is figuring out what those few things you’re to focus on are going to be.

And it certainly doesn’t help when you go online and see pages and pages of articles telling you that if you don’t do social media, or have a website- or whatever the new flavour of the month is then your business will be DEAD!

Okay, so here’s a good place to start:

Focus all your energy on serving a particular type of client- but a client no one else is serving well thus far. Start with what products and services you are delivering, and then the activities you should be doing should become obvious.

For instance, instead of making woolen jerseys for everyone, why not make woolen jerseys for those doing outdoor water sports?

Maybe you’d use the type of wool that’s most flexible for movement, using a knit pattern and texture that mimics ducks feathers to allow the water slide off. Maybe you also use the finest threads possible so to prevent scratching and chafing (and to prevent catching on anything), and treat all products with a water resistant spray.

Then for the activities to get your products out in the market?

Well, you’d then obviously try sell your products in places people who do outdoor water sports hang out at. There may be kayaking shops, online sports forums, and bloggers and news sites dedicated to these sports. And given people’s passion for these sporting activities, you may decide that being on Facebook is going to work for you given it’s the platform people use to talk about things they are passionate about, and want to show their friends they are doing. Maybe you could even sponsor a prominent outdoor water sport athlete.

You will no longer have to go to most business networking mixers- your target audience isn’t likely to be there. You can stop trying to get your products into fashion stores- that’s not your audience either.

And if you’ve got a team- decision making will become easier. Do I use the materials that looks the best or those that are the most water resistant? Well obviously the latter. Boom! That’s one less meeting and round of emails you need to have. On the process side of things, if you’re able to narrow down the products and services you’ll be delivering, then you’ll also be able to automate and template a lot of your activity- something that you aren’t able to do if you have to deliver everything custom to a wide audience.

The only things you need to be sure of before taking your business down a focused direction is whether there’s going to be sufficient demand for the product or service you’ll create, and whether the numbers and logistics will work. If you are able to produce a product highly desired by your market, but the price to do so is way out of step with what people would be willing to pay- then it’s not gonna work. Same goes if you’re unable to deliver in a timely manner, or what you want to do just isn’t physically possible.

While doing all this won’t be easy, it will certainly be easier than doing everything you can and praying something works.

The math behind why having a unique business will help you beat your competition.

You have a business selling T-shirts. There are another 9 businesses selling T-shirts. And for arguments sake we’re gonna keep this simple and say that in your market the internet doesn’t exist, and only white T-shirts exist. And let’s say everything else is the same- the place you sell them from, the number of staff each of you have etc etc.

So all up there’s 10 businesses in your market selling T-shirts.

Right now you have a 1 in 10 chance of a customer choosing to buy a T-shirt from you.

One day, you discover dye and decide to start producing black T-shirts instead.

And overnight your sales increase from selling 10 T-shirts a day, to selling 50 T-shirts a day. Which means that your chances of customers buying a T-shirt from you instead of your competitors is now 1 in 2.

Why?

Because now you’ve just re-framed how customers make their decision. Instead of evaluating each T-shirt provider separately, they now select between 2 options; between black T-shirts & white T-shirts.

And assuming an equal number of people prefer black T-shirts to white- that means you’ll get half of all the business from customers wanting T-shirts.

Sounds simple right?

In theory yes. But in reality no.

IN REALITY all these businesses selling white T-shirts wouldn’t realise they’re all selling white T-shirts.

They’d all think they were unique. Extra thread count on this T-shirt! Better service on this one- they all come freshly pressed and ironed! Ours are more comfortable with no scratchy seams!

So they’d not even consider making their business unique- because they think it already is.

But to most people buying their products, they don’t think these factors are that important (if they even notice the differences at all)- they’re all just white T-shirts.

Does this sound familiar?

Haven’t we all heard businesses emphasise their superior service? Or their superior features? And either think yeah right! Or just have our eyes glaze over being given such irrelevant detail?

Or worse…could this be your business without you realising it?

IN REALITY black T-shirts exist. So we already knew in our theoretical example that there is demand for black T-shirts.

So what could you do in reality to make your business unique if you had a T-shirt business?

You’d have to find something that wasn’t already being done by others, as well as make sure that people would actually want it.

Could you even be sure that people would want it if what you’re about to do hasn’t been done in your market before?

IN REALITY markets aren’t as simple as they are in theory. There’s other alternatives available such as singlets, strapless tops, and opportunities to go shop online.

So would what you’re about to do be preferable to not only your competitors, but every other alternative out there?

IN REALITY things aren’t quite so simple and easy, but if it were easy then everyone would be doing it. And if everyone were doing it, they may have already snapped up some of the best opportunities. And in that case it would be even more difficult to hunt for opportunities than it is now.

So hop along- get hunting!

Specialised and narrow or more diversified and broad? What is the better route to go down for my business to beat the competition?

If you follow what we do at all, you may know that we specialise in helping people conceptualise and create products and services that’ll help you beat your competition- or even better make your former competition entirely irrelevant.

And what most experts would recommend hands down to achieve this goal would be the specialisation route.

Because if you were choosing between a company that dabbles in a few things- including the thing you actually want, and a company that specialises in the thing you want…well… you’d no doubt have to choose the latter all else being equal. Unless the dabblers could present you with a significant cost saving, making going with them more worthwhile.

While we don’t disagree with this logic, we also believe that there’s a time and place to be more broad and diversified, and doing so could help you to get an edge. And in some cases, if you don’t, beating your competition could be very difficult indeed.

On the flip side, when talking to business owners, we find many of them have taken their businesses down the diversified route.

Sometimes they started like this from the beginning, and other times they may have started off more narrow, but diversified by adding complimentary services over time.

Why? Because intuitively it feels like the right thing to do.

Narrowing down your services can feel scary, like you’re gonna have less potential customers out there to buy from you, and feel you may miss out on more opportunities.

So what we’d like to do is go through the reasons why you may miss out on MORE opportunities by not narrowing things down, before completely contradicting ourselves and revealing when it may actually help you NOT to do so.

HOW IS IT POSSIBLE FOR BUSINESS TO INCREASE WHILST THE SIZE OF MY MARKET DECREASES?

Because you’ll be able to charge more, win more business, and spend less time and money doing so. Here’s how:

Picture this: you’re at one of those business networking mixer event things. There’s a range of people there from all different types of businesses. Let’s go with 50 of them.

Let’s compare the different experiences you’ll have being there representing a broad diversified business vs your competitor that has a narrow specialised business.

Factor 1: marketing activities & message depth.

Specialised: You’ve assessed the guest list, and identified 5 people to speak to who you’ve identified need your services. You’re super specialised so are able to identify they have the problem you solve with a bit of quick Google scanning. You go along to the event, and spend 10mins with each of them. They understand what you do, and know you’d be able to help them. All they need to know is the in-depth specifics. You go home after that. Or heck- even go to another event after.

Generalised: You look over the guest list, and are only able to rule out 10 people who most likely won’t need your services. The rest are all possibles, with each possibly needing a few of your services. You go to the event and spend a few minutes with each, discussing a range of services. Your message depth with each is shallow, and they are left still wondering whether or not you’d actually be able to help them.

Factor 2: time to decision

Specialised: You set up meetings with each of the 5 potentials, and discuss the specifics & whether or not you’re gonna work together. You hand them a pre made proposal- which you’re able to do because you only deal with one problem, which has the same process to follow to fix no matter the business. You call them a week later to confirm the sale.

Generalised: You set up meetings with half those you spoke with (the other half didn’t see a good enough reason to). At the meetings with the others, you inquire into their situation, and attempt to find problems you could fix that correspond to services that you offer. You then go away, and craft custom proposals for each. You then follow them up, and possibly speak further to clarify things and answer any questions, before a decision is made.

Factor 3: Deals won

Specialised: In the match up between your proposals, and those of your competitors, you’ll come out on top because your services fit the clients situation to a T. Except for one because the competitor while not a perfect fit was significantly cheaper. You wouldn’t make much off it anyway.

Generalised: Lots of the proposals don’t fit exactly, or have been done off the cuff without knowing what has worked before- and don’t make it through. A few don’t match up well in a comparison with the specialised competitor, and a few make it through. They have played the ‘numbers game’ and got the same amount through as the specialised company.

So that’s just a snippet of why it works; because you’ll have to work much harder for the same sales figures if you’re more generalised in what you do.

There are a few other advantages of being specialised such as more referrals and word of mouth as your message is simpler (and easier to pass along), and you come up top of mind when someone asks who do you know who does ‘x’?
Being specialised will not work however if your niche is too small, and there’s not enough demand for your services to make a viable business out of it.

CAN I BE SPECIALISED WITHOUT HAVING TO NICHE DOWN AND MAKE MY MARKET SIZE SMALLER?

Absolutely- But only if you stick to one idea. No Frankenstein ideas like I make Tomato AND Barbeque sauce. Together!!!!!

Take for instance water. Nearly everyone drinks it right? But if you have to explain what it is (relative to other drinks) it’s still one idea of ‘the flavourless drink’.

The key to keeping your market broad while you keep your message and idea on point is to think of what one need lots of groups may share may be.

You may have the health conscious crowd drinking water for its non caloric properties that come with a flavourless drink, the foodies for its palette cleansing properties, and your everyday thirsty person just cause it’s there.

I’M WORRIED I’LL BE BORED ONLY STICKING TO ONE THING. ANYWAY AROUND THIS?

The way around this is to either blend all your interests together into one idea (if you can do so), applying your business expertise to a range of different problems or industry sectors, or finding an untouched large space with lots of varied things to do inside of it.

An untouched space is an area yet to be explored- and often is what we think of when we hear about new never before seen innovations. Specialisation is just a relative term. The first car makers would have had the option of working on a range of different vehicle types had they wanted to; such as trucks, race cars, tanks and so on, because there was nothing to compare them to, they were all just ‘cars’. Now that the industry and market has matured, the market has broken up into smaller specialised niche markets.

I’M WANTING TO HEDGE MY BETS IN CASE THE MARKET OR ECONOMY CHANGES. WHAT DO I DO HERE?

You can have different products and services, just keep each idea separate on the surface and treat as separate businesses. One idea=One business.

Also consider whether you have the time and money to do more than one properly.

As you can see, there’s many many many good reasons for you to specialise your business. But to keep the whole balanced, unbiased journalism thing going, we must point out one very good reason to generalise- to give you an understanding of your business space that you wouldn’t get from being a specialist.

Generalising gives you more exposure to different things, and in doing so you may start to see connections and patterns between different parts- or entirely unrelated things. It’s this knowledge that will help you to create a great specialism.

This goes doubly if you’re generalising in areas that aren’t typically related- like being both an artist and a physicist.

It will give you a unique point of view. And if you can apply your unique point of view commercially, then you’ll have specialist knowledge that no one else has. So you’ll from day one be the leader in your field, and instantly be the top expert.

And generalising also helps you to know yourself better by helping you figure out what your strengths and preferences are. Because when it comes time to choose a lane, I’m sure we want the certainty of knowing it suits our sweet spot between what we’re good at and what we love.

And lastly, generalising within your own industry space helps you understand your market, and how all the pieces fit together- which will help you to understand your place in it, your customers, and be able to make better recommendations to customers based on a well informed perspective.

All in all, we believe is that it’s not a matter of if you specialise-but when. Generalise until you have gained unique experiences that you can use to create a great specialty, and understand your market, customers, and who you want to be- then specialise.