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Small Fish in a Big Pond? Learn to Position Your Startup Among Competition


By Goran Bogunovic, April 6, 2017

In the wild market economy which now exists, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate yourself.

“Funky Business”, K. Nordström and J. Ridderstråle

We heard it a million times: be unique, be different, strive towards authenticity, stay ahead of your competition, offer distinctive value to your audience that cannot be found anywhere else. These are the usual advice that can be found in generic articles across the web. You read them through and feel fully equipped with what you need to do but lack the how part.

And if you’re even slightly impatient by nature, you’ll probably think to yourself: wow, ok, thanks for nothing.

Truly mind-blowing insights.

Like you didn’t know it’s important to be yourself. Or that you have to earn more than you’re spending in order to make profit.

Whether we’re talking about startups or big corporations, it’s not enough just to have great products and services. You need to find an effective way to sell them and communicate your brand. And it’s an ongoing process.

If quality is the essence of your business and the core of your efforts, like the perfect melted chocolate filling in the croissant – the way you deliver is what wraps it up; it’s the crunchy dough around it that has the perfect intoxicating scent that draws people to your bakery.

So, in order to become successful, you have to get to the point where you’ll be able to offer the whole package, something that people will recognize, enjoy, and recommend to others.

But how do you actually get there? How do you stand out from the crowd and position yourself among the competition?

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Oh, Fishy Fish – Look How Tiny You Are

We all have to start somewhere. Startups are the little guys on the market but there is a big misconception here: just because you’re little doesn’t automatically mean you’re the cursed underdog or that others can push you around.

The truth is, the market is huge and vastly segmented. But startup-mindset usually wants to speed up time and skip all the steps before reaching the first significant milestone. Startuppers get this strong feeling of success that’s about to happen and skyrocket their business, and it seems so tangible that their self-perception gets distorted. This is why you usually end up competing with the wrong business group. And within this context, you as a startupper don’t stand a chance.

Guy Kawasaki
Great companies start because the founders want to change the world… not make a fast buck.Guy Kawasaki, marketing specialist and author

It’s not that your idea is less valuable than the one of huge brands; it’s just that you’re not there yet.

And do ask yourself – do you even want to be there? To reach the status of a corporate giant?

Startups are typically seen as temporary forms of businesses before they experience growth and hopefully become large corporations (although this is not always the case). Anyhow, you shouldn’t compare yourself to the big guys. That’s a one-way ticket to self-pity land. We know the grass seems much greener there, given the fact the big fish already have an established brand, great access to capital, and an army of loyal clients.

But despite what you might think, there are actual advantages of being a small fish in the business pond. You just have to be savvy enough and shift your perspective a bit in order to take full advantage of your size.

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Seth Godin, a renowned author, entrepreneur, and marketer, wrote many exceptional books about the art of marketing and the ways to achieve business success. He is an awesome expert known by his willingness to share parts of his knowledge free of charge via his website and on his blog. Here’s what Godin pointed out as benefits of being the little guy:

  • You can afford to challenge the status quo: While bigger companies have a lot to lose and they usually shy away from risky ventures, you have no millions to lose. New trends and technology breakthroughs create new market gaps. And market gaps are huge business opportunities for startups.
You shouldn’t compare yourself to the big guys. That’s a one-way ticket to self-pity land. We know the grass seems much greener there, given the fact the big fish already have an established brand, great access to capital, and an army of loyal clients.

Just like a married couple that finally settled down, big companies usually stick to their stability: it’s only fair, they’ve worked hard for it. But aspiring startuppers are more enterprising and agile by nature. They seek adventure, they feed on excitement, and they want something fresh and wild. They use their creativity and embrace the philosophy of bootstrapping.

  • It’s easier to feed a small fish: Big fish need to eat a lot in order to survive. Small fish are well fed with sole crumbles. The competition is harsh but as a small business – you have more room to operate. It’s important to define your niche and narrow your goals in order to succeed. And if we may add – sometimes microniches work the best. When you position yourself as an expert in a very specific field (e.g. organizing weddings for same-sex couples), you have a clearly defined target audience who will probably perceive you as a more relevant service provider than someone who does the same but for a wider audience (e.g. a classic wedding organizer).
  • You’re the decision maker: Whereas in large companies there is an established hierarchy and you frequently have to ask for someone’s permission, within a startup – you’re the boss. Or at least this process gets significantly shorter and solved within a meeting with your team.
  • More efficient management: Smaller team means you don’t have to waste your time on lengthy processes and brainstorming is a lot easier. You have a better control of what’s going on.
  • People love outcasts: If you have a good storyline, customers will see you as someone they can relate to. It’s like having sympathy for the hipster.
  • Low overall costs: As a small fishy fish, you don’t have to handle high costs of business offices or worry about paychecks for hundreds of employees. While big companies focus on the revenue, you can focus on making an impact. These are two very different kinds of rush.
  • You can enjoy the luxury of time: Big companies are always on a tight schedule and they have a usual sequence of tasks they do every month. You, on the other hand, have more time to contemplate new ideas (which, of course – doesn’t mean you should waste your time doing nothing).   

We often think that bigger is better and that earning a lot of money is a measurement of success. However, if you have true startup spirit – your goals are probably a bit different. Thinking about the upsides of being a small fish is a true reality check that helps you bring your startup up to its feet.

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Making Your Nest On the Market

Guy Kawasaki is definitely your go-to expert when it comes to launching your startup. He is best known as the marketing specialist from Apple and a recognizable author of dozens of relevant books from the field.

Following his advice, in order to position your startup on the market – you have to answer a simple question:

What do you do?

Before learning how to communicate your message on the market and differentiate yourself from others, you need to be crystal clear about what is it that you do and why did you decide to do it. Here are some guidelines we picked up from Kawasaki to help you successfully get to the bottom of this:

    • Focus on the positive notions: You should avoid the warlike terms as your future customers care about what good do you want to make, not what competitors you want to crush. And it’s not just for the business success: that type of ill motivation won’t get you anywhere.
    • It’s not about you, it’s about your customers: Reduce the ego to the minimum. Your startup should be primarily about others who seek certain services or products, not about becoming the next big entrepreneur featured on Forbes.

 

  • Make sure others realize you’re a problem-solver: Use all of your channels to communicate how your startup idea changes the world. Primarily rely on your website as it is a unique disseminator of ideas you’re fully in charge of. Think about that hiatus between the current world as it is, and the world as it could be. Then show your audience how your startup helps bridge the gap between the two.

They say you’re ready to take over the market the moment everyone involved in your startup knows exactly what is it that you do: from the managers and designers to secretaries and developers. If they all have a clear and unified definition of what is it that you do, you’re good to go!

seth-godin
In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is a failure. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.Seth Godin, founder of Squidoo, author, and marketer

Skipping the evaluation of these three points is a frequent rookie mistake for those who are just plunging into the world of startups, especially because many think the aggressive approach is the only thing that works on the highly competitive market.

Once you’re certain you’ve got these three covered, you can turn to defining your target audience and the impact you want to make in more detail.

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Finding a Way to Communicate Your Authenticity

Remember our croissant analogy?

The practice of coming up with the completely new, revolutionary products and services is rarer than enhancing and bettering the existing ones. This is why story sells: humans have the inborn need to connect through a certain storyline. The package sells, design sells, the way you communicate sells. You have to focus on making that crispy croissant dough that will attract your customers and clients.

There are two key things you should focus on here:

  • Making it personal
  • Making it weird (different is good, weird is better)

When it comes to designing your products and services with a personal touch, Kawasaki pointed out a great quote by Aldous Huxley that perfectly sums it up:

To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.

Making your startup’s brand message personal to your audience sends a clear signal they matter. And customers feed on feeling appreciated and wanted.

If you’re having trouble with formulating your startup’s values in a way that it communicates authenticity, take a lesson from ancient rhetorics. There are three main parts of the message you’re sending out to your target audience:

  • The logical structure of what you’re trying to communicate (does what you’re saying make sense?)
  • Your personal credibility (what makes you the perfect, competent person for the job?)
  • Emotions you want to trigger (who is your target audience and how can you reach them emotionally?)

To truly leave an impression of a startup that’s like no other, you have to master these three elements and keep them in balance. Emotions are an incredible weapon you can use to make your business more personal. Take a look at Kawasaki’s example:

Impersonal:  Increasing the mean test scores for children in your school district.

Personal: Ensuring that Johnny can read.

You see, uniqueness doesn’t have to be something extraordinary: sometimes it lies in the simplest thing like changing your approach and setting the tone so that it resonates with your target group.

As for being weird, it is about creating some sort of a glue-story that people will stick to. Being weird means you’re somewhat peculiar, and being peculiar means you’re intriguing. Psychology has a fairly logical explanation of why being weird works in the business field.

Think hard: what’s your superpower? What are you exceptionally good at? What is the essence of your weirdness? Once you determine the roots of your biggest strengths, you can start figuring out how to implement them and position your startup on the market.

Firstly, people naturally favor things they feel a similarity with. Society puts rules upon us which is why we feel inhibited when facing various etiquettes. When we discover a part of something essentially weird in someone, we are drawn to it and tend to identify. Secondly, something that is atypical instantly captures our attention and motivates us to explore it and unlock its meaning.

Authenticity is about being able to build your startup’s identity and stick to it, which basically means growing a backbone and doing your own thing.

Think hard: what’s your superpower? What are you exceptionally good at? What is the essence of your weirdness? Once you determine the roots of your biggest strengths, you can start figuring out how to implement them and position your startup on the market.

Sometimes, we try too hard to think out of the box that we forget the importance of reaching out to people and thinking about their needs and the way they are used to communicate. Kawasaki advises doing something that’s opposite from what your competition is doing.

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Not different, but opposite.

The art of it lies in finding a way to do so without communicating any kind of negative message or damaging your brand.

Of course, you can never fully control your position on the market, but you can do your best to obtain the one you think you deserve, according to your set goals. You can easily test whether or not your idea of the brand positioning matches the reality: write down what you think you’re offering your clients, ask for their feedback and see what’s their perception of it, and then compare the two. It’s important to realize your position on the market is never fully protected and sealed, but very changeable, for better and for worse.

The Struggle is Real

Startups imply a lot of internal work. One of the most frequent mistakes is constantly looking over the fence to see what others are up to. It usually happens when you’re lead by the fear that someone might be better than you.

Well, newsflash: there are people who are better than you, just as there are people who are worse than you.

A certain dose of competition is healthy. But obsessing about it is not productive, especially when you’re still making the first steps with your baby startup.

Let’s make a brief trip through time and visit the Ancient Greece. Greeks were a truly fascinating people with deeply rooted cultural codes that revolved around the notion of honor. There is a Greek term agon (ἀγών) that basically means a contest or a fight. Greeks perceived life as a struggle, but in the most positive manner.

Learn from the wise Greeks:

You compete to test yourself, to learn, and to push your limits further, and the most important competitor is not your opponent but yourself.

This is why it is crucial to go an extra mile in everything you do.

Sometimes, that extra step is so small but many businesses refuse to make it as they have a certain pattern that works and their “good is good enough” mindset prevents them from progressing. Just think about your everyday: the simple words like “thank you” or “you’re welcome” can turn your day around. Yet, too many people think it’s something that is implied, even though kindness makes a huge difference and goes a long way. Everyone loves to be appreciated and these little gestures count: same goes for your startup.

We here at Domain.me are great supporters of the startup community and stand proudly as the web home of some of the most innovative startups out there!

This article is a part of our startup serie. Next stop: learning all about different business models and the importance of writing a business plan that actually works in reality!

[To find out more about the pre-launch phase and whether or not the world needs your startup, check out the previous article from the serie!]


Author:

Goran Bogunovic

Now, you're probably wondering how I got here! Running a marketing agency, educating people about branding, and helping you to develop your own presence online. To understand, you’ll need to follow me @Domain.Me

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