Participation versus differentiation

Right now, across the world, hundreds of different people are opening an office, a restaurant, a social media company … They’ve sunk everything they have into it. They’ve thrown their life at it. It’s what they’ve always wanted to do, and every one of them and the people who has supported them hopes and believes they’ll succeed. Most won’t.

Right now, somewhere in the world, someone is planning a business that will one day be bigger than every other brand in their sector. The next shipping magnate woke up somewhere in the world today, without a ship to their name. The property magnate of the future is eating lunch in a schoolyard somewhere. Tomorrow’s Madonna has a clothesbrush, a mirror and perhaps an i-Pod …

The contrast couldn’t be greater, and yet curiously, the two groups are interdependent. Because in order for someone to stand out in a market, the vast majority must fail to do so.

If every café that opened stayed open, the hospitality sector would collapse because no-one could succeed, no-one could expand. Same with fashion, hairdressing or education. Unless you’re working in a market that just continues to enjoy extraordinary organic growth, attrition is hard-wired into the functionalism of the capitalist system. People have to run out of money in order for the money to be made elsewhere. People have to stop booking one airline in order to consistently fly on another. Someone choosing your hotel didn’t choose another hotel. Most of the time, the dynamic is zero-gain. In many sectors, it’s shrinking.

It’s your business against every other business in the market.

What never fails to amaze me is how so many businesses believe they have what it takes to beat the odds. Their formula for success? Participation. They’ll open the doors and chance it against the stupidity or inefficiency of their competitors. That’s it. They’re utterly dependent on passion, hope, hard work and perhaps the advertising budget to outshine the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others who will open their doors on the very same morning at the same time to tout for the same pool of business – the veterans, the emergents, the strugglers, the other newbies. And on every other morning from then on.

It’s a dynamic that every business faces, no matter how long they’ve been in business. If you’re new, you’re needing to make your mark often against very established players. If you’ve been in business for a while, statistically the odds are tilting against you even though, ironically, you may be feeling secure in the knowledge of your history.

The sad reality for many brands, if they have looked to face up to the brutal reality of competition, is that they’ve probably done it by confronting the wrong question.

This is the wrong question: “What will we do if we fail?”. It assumes participation.

This is the right question: “Why won’t we fail when so many others must?” It requires differentiation.

If you can’t answer the right question, you’re a casualty. The only question left is one of timing. If you stop asking the right question, you’re also going – no matter how long you may have been in the game.

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