How do you differentiate your business from your competition? Will potential clients recognize your brand? Do they even know your brand exists? What can you do that can’t be easily duplicated?
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The last few weeks I’ve talked about what I think is a changing and shrinking market for our services. It’s certainly true for my services and I’m guessing yours as well.
I talked about the smiling curve and how it points the way for us to survive and thrive despite a shrinking market and then last week I looked at the right side of the curve and how you can add value to your business through scale.
Today I want to talk about moving to the left along the curve and adding value through differentiation and uniqueness. I want to talk about how you can add scarcity to your business.
The Opposite of Scale
One of the things I find interesting about the smiling curve is that you can add value on opposite ends of the value chain. The main thing is to move away from the middle and you have choices in which way to go.
You can add value at either or both ends, based on your interests, your skills, or the potential revenue something brings. Choose the thing that comes easier to you or that you find less objectionable. You should be able to find value somewhere away from the middle that you’re comfortable doing.
One end of the curve was scale. The end I want to talk about today is the opposite of scale. It’s doing something difficult to duplicate. You’re adding value through a lack of scale, through scarcity.
Offer something that’s difficult to replicate, automate, or scale. Make yourself or your work hard to copy. Differentiate yourself from the designers and developers that are your competition. Do something they don’t know exists or better that they still find difficult to copy even after they see how it’s done.
Become a better designer or developer. Become a more unique designer or developer. Become a more unique you.
Give yourself bonus points if you recognize the battle between productivity and creativity in all of this. Scale and productivity on one side. Scarcity and creativity on the other.
How to Differentiate and Be Scarce
Just as there are multiple ways to add scale, there are multiple ways to differentiate and add scarcity. I think they all revolve around doing what you do better and doing it more uniquely you.
I’ll break things done into two main categories.
Go niche. Look deeper instead of wider. Specialize.
You might need to be less of a generalist. Sell a narrower set of services with a deeper focus on a smaller market. Get better through your deeper focus. Become the big fish in the smaller pond as opposed to yet another small fish in the ocean.
Smaller markets aren’t as profitable for companies that are built for scale. Scale seeks increased sales. It wants larger markets. Larger organizations at scale are looking to serve the masses. They can’t serve everyone with the same level of quality or satisfaction.
In moving to a niche market you can serve a smaller segment of the overall market better than the big companies. Serve the underserved edges instead of the center.
You should command a higher price because there are less people serving the smaller niche. There are fewer people the market can turn to. Less supply with the same demand leads to higher prices.
Less people will choose to become an expert at the same thing you do so there will be less competition. Your services are more scarce. Your prices can be higher and you don’t need as many clients.
If you believe in the idea that 1,000 true fans can support a creator how many do you think are needed to support a service based business? 20? 50? How many clients do you really need. If you can become the expert for 50 or 100 people, you probably have a strong freelance business.
Specialization could mean working for a larger organization. It wouldn’t be joining the organization for scale, but rather to be the expert in something the company does. Maybe it means you become the department. The idea is to make yourself the most difficult employee for the company to replace.
It could also mean working for yourself and offering services few others do. You might combine services across different disciplines. For example combine design, development, marketing, sales, and analytics and offer conversion optimization services to ecommerce clients. I don’t know how many people currently offer conversion optimization (CRO) services, but I’m sure it’s less than those offering general design and development services.
Building a Brand
Building a brand isn’t easy or quick work, but there are a few things I want to talk about that can build your brand in way that adds scarcity to your business.
- Get better
- Develop a recognizable style
- Share a distinct personality
One way to stand out is to be better than everyone else. Be the best designer or developer you can be. Improve your skills, which is something you should be doing anyway. Be better than that. Be the only person that can solve a client’s problem. Be someone they think in advance can solve their problem.
The best, the most talented, the most skilled, won’t lack for clients or job offers should they prefer. You’ll be able to ask your price or your salary. The best comes with a limited supply of one. You can’t get much more scarce than that.
Be so good that when someone wants it done right, they want you. When businesses talk about the successful sites they have, you want them to mention you as the person who designed and/or developed the site. You want everyone talking about you and how good you are. Build a brand around yourself or company that has people asking for one or both by name.
One way I think we can do this that doesn’t get talked about enough is to become a better storyteller. Stories are about communication. Design is also about communication. Design is visual storytelling.
Businesses sell products and services with stories. The business tells a story about itself, the work it does, who it can help, and more. If the story resonates with a potential customer it likely leads to a sale. Tell stories visually that let your designs sell products and services like they’re supposed to do.
Don’t just get better. Develop your own unique style. When it’s time for a potential client to hire a designer or developer make them ask for you by name or point to something you’ve done and say they want the person who did that work.
Mike Kus is a web designer who comes to mind as someone with a unique style. You may not like every one of his designs, but there’s usually something interesting in them and more important there’s something unique. I can often tell Mike’s work without knowing Mike was the person behind the work.
It’s possible people will try to copy your unique style, but if they do it well, people will probably think it’s you and if they do it poorly it’s easy to point out it’s not your work. Kind of a win-win for you.
Who says aesthetics aren’t important? Like it or not it’s how most people will judge your work. They’ll decide if a design is good based solely on an initial impression of how it looks.
We try to get away from aesthetics as what we think is important and what we wish customers would see. We’ll push usability and performance as web design and both are certainly important aspects of designing a website.
You can’t ignore the parts about making a site usable and functional and doing what you can to improve its performance. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that how your designs look isn’t the major factor in why most people hire you.
You should probably spend more time improving the aesthetic quality of your work. Before someone realizes how easy it is to navigate around your latest design, they’ll notice your color scheme and decide if they like the site.
It’s great to focus on usability and accessibility and performance and we should all be getting better with these things, but if your site looks like ever other site (Bootstrap anyone?) what is there to compel someone to choose you over all the other sites that look the same.
Like it or not; agree with me or not, a lot of people will hire you based solely on how the sites in your portfolio look. That’s just how it is. Develop your unique visual voice. Discover trends before everyone else or better be the trend setter.
Aesthetics are better at telling a story than a completely minimal, functional, and usable design. Unless the story you’re telling is one of minimal, functional, and usable, of course.
Story communicates. Story connects. Story builds empathy. Story helps turn prospects into customers and customers into loyal customers. Usability can be part of the story, but it won’t be the whole story. Usability will enhance stories by improving the experience. Aesthetics, though, can contribute more to your visual story than anything else.
In addition to a unique style to your work, you can differentiate yourself through your unique personality or the personality of your business.
Some people will choose you even if there are better options. They’ll choose you because they like you and trust you. They’ll want to support you because they see you both as connected to a larger cause you both support.
You have to do something more than a token donation or announcing how green your company us. Speak your mind. Don’t water things down. Sure, you’ll lose a part of the market that doesn’t agree with your views, but you’ll become that much more appealing to another part of the market that does agree. Make it difficult to duplicate your personal connection and relationship with your client.
I have no idea if Gary Vaynerchuk knows anything about wine, but I do know his name and I know it’s associated in part with wine. I would certainly click a link with his name in search results if I’m looking for information about wine.
Stand for something. Instead of trying to please everyone, please those most aligned with your views and who you are as a person.
This isn’t about being loud for the sake of being loud, though I suppose that does fit and can work. It’s about being you and not hiding who you are. Connect with potential clients because of who you are. You can connect and stand out for something related to the work you do, but it doesn’t have to be related. It just has to be away to stand our and differentiate yourself from your competition.
Think differentiation. Think uniqueness. Think scarcity.
Once again, I’ll repeat what I’ve been saying for a few weeks now. I think the market I serve and probably the one many of you serve is changing. The part that hires us is shrinking.
A smiling curve helps describe and explain what’s going on and it points the way toward adding value to our businesses. That’s something you should want to do regardless of whether you agree with my assessment of the market.
Both scale and scarcity (opposite sides of the same coin) can add value to your business and help you make more money, shrinking market or not.
Adding scarcity is mostly about getting better and building a brand for yourself and your business. You can build a brand by getting better through learning and practice and improving your skills.
You can go niche and specialize to become an expert on a smaller subject with less competition. Become an expert on a smaller subject instead of remaining intermediate to a wider audience
You can develop a unique and recognizable style to your work and you can also show a unique side to your personality. The key is becoming recognizable and doing things that others find difficult to duplicate.
Next week I have one last post/podcast in this series. I’ll talk about my personal choices in moving left and right along the smiling curve and I’ll share some of the reasons why I’m choosing to transition my business, the specific way I am.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.
Becoming an expert in what you do has its benefits. You are asked by others about your expertise and recognized for it as well.
True, and real expertise is something that can differentiate you from your competition.