One of the first things we learn in Self Employment 101 or our Small Business Independent Studies class is that we have to have something that makes us unique. This is variously referred to using terms like “USP” – if you’re attending a small business course in 1965 – or a “market differentiator” – if you like lots of syllables and corporate speak. Not that those two terms are actually interchangeable, but the thrust of both is that in order for your business to succeed, you’ll need to understand its place and the market, and find ways to cash in on its uniqueness.
So does your business have some unique quality that sets it apart from all others? Sit down and breathe calmly before you read the next two words. Probably not. If you look at government statistics like these, you will quickly realize that until you get into the realm of companies that have over a hundred employees, there are half a million or more other small businesses out there. Of course, they’re not all in your niche, but unless you have some unique skill like blacksmithing or horse-whispering, you can rest assured that there are plenty of other people doing what you’re doing. Especially if you’re in a service-based business, which makes up about 40% of all small businesses in the US, followed by retail at 20% and construction at about 10%.
So with over 20 million small businesses active in the US, the odds that yours has something remarkably unique about it are pretty slim. So are you feeling a little less special now? Don’t. While it’s largely true that your business is probably not terribly unique, maybe you’re lucky enough to be in a specialized niche that IS unique. But more importantly, as a small business owner, maybe you need to ponder the fact that your greatest differentiator really is YOU. There are a lot of examples of how the personality of the owner leaves its mark on the customer appeal and overall success of even the hugest of corporations. There’s probably an example where you live of this type of company on the medium-sized enterprise level. In my area, the supermarket Busch’s is an example of a growing chain that has a hands-on CEO/owner, and the world-renowned Zingerman’s would be another another example of a booming corporation where the owners have infused the entire organization with their unique commitment to an elevated level of quality and service. And this can scale up too; try to imagine Apple without Steve Jobs, or Amazon without Jeff Bezos.
My associate Nick has been torturing me with this idea for a while now, first by turning me on to the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. This book was a head-turner for me, and got me started on a tough question that has been helping me re-shape almost everything I’m doing. That first question for me was: Of all the things I do, could I be best in the world at any of them? I’m still not sure I know the answer yet, but the question helped me examine a few projects that I was enthused about, but to which I hadn’t applied any rigorous and purposeful assessment in terms of their long-term meaning to me, or likelihood of exceptional success. Being a self-directed free thinker, often the simple fact that I want to do something is good enough for me. But also being a persistent “I can do everything!” kind of person, I end up mired in endless work, by working on too many projects that may in fact never reach that special level of success I’m seeking. More recently, Nick shared a question from a worksheet he’d been asked to complete at a seminar, which was “what makes your business remarkable”. I joked that it must be a nice gig going around asking people uncomfortable questions like that, but the question is powerful in itself.
So if – like me – you’re spinning your wheels on too many projects and looking for a way to narrow your scope and sharpen your focus, try asking those two questions:
What thing do I do that I could be the BEST IN THE WORLD at?
What makes me or my business idea REMARKABLE?
These questions don’t necessarily have pat answers, and the answer may have more to do with you than your business, which is merely an expression of you. But I hope the process of trying to answer the question is as helpful to you as it was to me. I’ll share the actual results of my exploration of these questions soon; for now I think I have some pruning to do.