I was talking to someone the other day about what they wanted to do with their business and bringing it online. The conversation started with this individual saying they felt their market, from an online perspective was underserved and that their products were without a doubt the best in the world. They were supremely confident that within six months, the online side of their business would be massive.
I’m always pretty sceptical when people who have a good solid offline business talk to me about going online and start from the premise that they are going to hit a home run, first-time at-bat and sign autographs during their standing ovation. I get even more cynical when they tell me the reason is that their market is underserved on the internet.
Within a few minutes of talking, I’d pretty much picked up that this person didn’t have a clue about just how they were going to build, run and manage an e-commerce business beyond, “I’ll hire some people overseas to do that for me, I hear the Philippines is really cheap.”
Whilst we were talking, I did a quick search on Google for competitors and found countless competing products with their own sites and on Amazon, some were really well built with obviously slick backends. I asked about their research because from what I was seeing, there was a ton of competition and on Amazon, the space was nearly saturated.
Then this person dropped one of the phrases I hate the most, “I know about those, but our product is incredibly unique, we’ll…” I stopped listening after the word “unique” but they talked probably for two minutes telling me why they were a special little unicorn and that their appearance in the online world would be heralded as a great moment for all mankind up there with the launch of Sputnik and Ralph Macchio’s “Crane” in the original Karate Kid movie.
I won’t be working with this person from a coaching perspective.
I realised many years ago that very few business ideas are unique in this world. It sounds pretty obvious that with a planet of seven billion people that your product or service would probably exist in a similar fashion somewhere else by accident if not outright copied, but strangely, some people don’t necessarily agree.
Put simply, if you have a good idea, it’s very likely that someone else has had it first and executed on it already.
I first learned this lesson when I took over running the SaaS company providing software to the construction industry. What our tool did was to streamline, track and automate a very complex, but relatively standard backend process that needs to happen on all construction and engineering projects. The tool was designed with massive levels of flexibility so that our customers could effectively design all of their own workflows and processes within the product directly.
The reason we went to so much trouble to build that type of advanced capability was that our customers kept telling us how unique they were and how their projects and their processes were so fundamentally different.
The truth was, while the software could be morphed to accommodate whatever the clients wanted to do from a workflow perspective, this flexibility was actually killing OUR business. The fact that the clients saw their projects as unique little snowflakes made the task of building out all of their workflows and processes at the start of a project a ridiculously daunting task. As a result, clients were forgoing our clearly superior system in favour of following their old manual processes.
It was absurd to watch our clients try and onboard themselves to our software – it was like giving a guy who is out fishing in a rowboat a massive dragnet, they didn’t even know where to start. It all became too hard, so they gave up and went back to what they knew.
We decided to send consultants out to all major client projects worth over a certain amount, usually client projects worth over $250m, to help onboard these customers. After about a dozen of these engagements, one of our consultants said, “This is madness, I keep doing the same workflows and processes over and over again at every project with minor variations.”
The penny dropped. These snowflakes weren’t really unique at all, they were largely all the same, they just thought they were different for a variety of reasons that generally had nothing to do with actual facts.
We gathered all of our consultants back at the office, pulled together some requirements and built out a set of standard templates that they saw pretty much on every project. Our configuration team were able to pull these templates together in quick order.
Then we decided to test a few things.
With the first group of customers, we just sent the consultants out armed with the templates but didn’t mention anything to the client. The consultants ran their workshops and then quietly tweaked the processes and workflows in the templates to suit the clients. This worked well and served as our baseline.
Where it got interesting was with the second group of customers. With this group of customers, we told them we had these templates that our consultants could use to fast track their deployment. Based on this, the customers ended up naturally splitting themselves into two cohorts.
The first cohort were the customers who told us, “That’s great, let’s use those as the base case.” For the most part, these customers all went on to quickly get up and running on the platform. They outperformed the first group because they knew they were getting templates and decided to change their processes and workflows to fit the software – essentially, they abandoned the idea of being unicorns.
The other cohort within the second group were the ones who told us they couldn’t possibly conform to the templates built by a “software company” because their business was far too complex and nuanced. These customers all went down the traditional route of consultants building their project out from scratch. These deployments took longer, cost more and needed more after work to fix badly thought out processes or missed workflows.
The bottom line was, people who thought they were unique and special always ended up worse off. Whether it was hubris, stupidity or whatever, I’m not sure, but it always resulted in the same outcome. Conversely, the people who accepted that they weren’t “unique” but could learn from the experience of others and tweak things a bit to put their own special spin on stuff fared much better.
The lesson in all this is pretty simple – while you might think that what you’re doing is somehow unique or special, it’s very likely that what you’re doing is incredibly similar to tons of other things happening online.
Importantly, this shouldn’t be seen as a weakness, but as a strength.
You don’t have to recreate the wheel, you just have to attach it to a better car, give it nicer rims and polish it up a bit.
Funnily enough, being similar to other things makes it easier to sell. You don’t have to “make” your market, you just have to go to an existing market, focus on what you do better and articulate how you can serve them in a more valuable way.
Your “unique value proposition” shouldn’t be that you’re fundamentally different than everything else in your market, but that you’re better than everyone else.
Remember, there’s no such thing as a unicorn and snowflakes melt.