Product Management, SaaS, Startups

What sets you apart? It’s probably not what you think. ft. @rrhoover

what-sets-you-apart

Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazsedky).

When I ask clients what sets them apart, what I hear from most is a lengthy list of features.

Variations on: “Our product does this, that, and the other thing.”

I hate to shoot them down, because they’re all really proud of what they’ve accomplished. Their products are, in fact, excellent at what they do. But here’s the problem with using features as differentiators:

Features can be copied.

Android phones are copying iPhones (and vice versa).

Google Cloud Storage is copying Dropbox and Box, or is it the other way around?

Germany’s Samwer brothers made their fortunes by blatantly copying existing web companies, including Airbnb and Pinterest, and selling the businesses back to their originators or other interested parties.

If you’ve made something, someone else can and will copy it. But, what they can’t copy is you.

“Oh, but I don’t want my business to be about me; I want it to be about my [product/customers/mission trips to Zambia].”

You’re on the right track with this train of thought. This post on CopyHackers says it best, “Potential clients aren’t interested in you. They want to hear what’s in it for them.” But one of the most important benefits customers get from purchasing your product is the expertise, experience, connections, and even personality behind it – your expertise, experience, connections and personality.

Give your brand a face

Some people are deeply hesitant, if not downright suspicious or fearful, of associating their names and faces with their companies. They believe their brands should speak for themselves, which isn’t a terrible idea. It’s just hard to achieve for startups and newer companies. This mindset also misses out on an opportunity.

It is much easier for an individual to become a recognized and respected thought-leader than it is for a corporation.

Consider this:

When Sean Ellis started GrowthHackers.com, he already had a large personal following and authority. He has earned his place as a thought-leader in the field with years of freely sharing valuable insights.

If someone else had tried to start a Growth Hackers community, they could copy the website’s basic premise of up-voting and commenting – but they could never duplicate Sean Ellis.

Similarly, the vibrant Product Hunt community has a duplicable up-vote and comment system, but getting another Ryan Hoover with all of his experience and Silicon Valley buy-in to run the show is unlikely.

Breaking the mold with community

When you consider what truly sets you apart – it has to be something no one else can copy. Knowledge, personal authority, established presence in the community, insider information, in-depth knowledge earned over years, and the community of engaged followers who gravitate to you.

Hubspot, for example, is an outstanding company that makes inbound marketing, content creation, segmentation and tracking easy. But even its sophisticated system will likely generate copycats in the coming years. What these latecomers won’t be able to replicate, however, is Hubspot’s strong community of inbound true-believers at Inbound.org.

Be the first – no one can take that away

You don’t have to invent something brand new to be the unforgettable first (though it helps). Being the first to introduce (or at least vocally adopt) a trend can also establish your reputation as a leader. Buffer beat just about everyone to being a “transparent” company. They’ve become famous for their “default to transparency” values and are credited for starting the movement.

In Running Lean, author Ash Maurya calls these differentiators “unfair advantages”:

A real unfair advantage is one that cannot easily be copied or bought.

On the list are:

  • Difficult-to-achieve capabilities – think of how Google has dominated the search market by constantly making improvements to be the best.
  • Community – the people who not only follow you, but add value for each other.
  • Dream team – it doesn’t have to be all about one person; your differentiator may be how you harness the considerable talents of others.
  • Exclusive access to a segment of customers
  • Reputation
  • Experience & insider knowledge

Once you’ve identified your unfair advantage, you’ve taken the first step towards building a company that may be copied, but will never be matched.

5 fun things to do with your differentiator

Now that you’ve identified your differentiator, or “unfair advantage,” it’s time to use it. You can:

  1. Use it in your unique value proposition.
  2. Include it in your supporting copy.
  3. Add it to the “About Us” section (with a benefits-focus on the customer, of course!).
  4. Let it inspire your social media strategy.
  5. Let it be the leading voice in your content, positioning you and your company as a thought-leader in your industry.

Let’s Get SaaSsy – I’m offering a limited number of SaaS consulting engagements.

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