Lessons I’ve learned to differentiate my business from competitors in a crowded market
These days, you can hardly start a fully brand-new, unique business idea or startup. Chances are there’s already one or many out there. Seems like almost everything you see in the market is becoming more commoditized than ever.
In my opinion, this could be due to the increasing market demand for cheaper, better, and faster delivery.
My startup provides ongoing, unlimited graphic design service at one fixed fee a month. Graphic design isn’t new, and there are many designers offering their services on retainer.
I was indeed trying to start another of the same thing in a crowded market. Think 99Designs, Freelancer.com, Upwork, and Fiverr — the whole world knows them, why would they come to me?
As a startup, it was a flop, only gaining some traction in its fourth year. This was due to many reasons. I didn’t do marketing as quickly as a startup founder should. I relied solely on referrals. Due to bad business decisions and poor execution on my part, there was a lack of sales.
All these reasons stemmed from one fundamental problem. That is, I failed to differentiate my brand from the others. If you are in a similar situation and struggle to take off, it’s high time you figured out why customers should choose you over another.
Here’s what I’ve learned to differentiate my business from competitors in a crowded market.
You Don’t Have to Be First
Although being the first mover or first to market may give you a competitive advantage, nobody cares if what you are selling is the first to appear in the world. This means there’s no need to die trying to think of something that’s not done before in order to stand out.
Apple, Facebook, Zoom, Flywheel, WP Engine, WP Buffs, The Hoth and tons of fast-growing businesses are not the first ones to be seen in the market. In fact, not being the first gives you the opportunity to fill gaps and unchartered areas in your industry to improve upon the same thing the first movers have.
“It costs approximately 60% to 75% less to replicate a product than it costs to create a new product.” — Investopedia
A great product is awesome, but from my experience, I realised success in standing out does not depend so much on the item I was selling. My service or product is just a bridge between me and my customers to save them time and sanity.
There are thousands of delicious pizzas, yet Domino’s is a brand I will go for if I want to order a pizza. There are thousands of cafes in the city, yet I look for a Starbucks when I need a cappuccino. It’s not that they are the first, but they give me either what I want faster or a better experience than the others.
Know Why They Buy
As service providers, we need to know the experiences our customers have been going through before they came to us. We also need to find out what they were looking to achieve by choosing to work with us.
My customers may come to me for design services, but the truth is, they don’t want design at all. They are asking for design or branding or graphics because those are the terms commonly understood. Sometimes, most of them don’t even know what they want and it’s up to us as service providers to probe.
As Zig Ziglar said:
“People don’t buy drills, they buy holes.”
Customers want to feel connected to their communities. In the case of graphic design, the feel of the artwork is the bridge to bring their messages across to the relevant audience. They want to build trust with their own customers.
Hence, when it comes to design, I would say that people don’t buy colours, fonts, or graphics. They don’t buy a website, a logo, or a poster. They buy engagement.
Stop Focusing on Operating Costs
For three years, my startup didn’t stand a chance. A lot of my time and energy were focused on trying to reduce operating costs to stay afloat. Yet the business was not growing and I remained broke.
Knowing that something wasn’t right, I decided to change things. Putting myself in my customer’s shoes above everything else, I started to think less about my business losses and focused on giving more value to them.
Focusing on costs misled me to do all the design work myself because hiring obviously leads to an increase in operating costs. On the contrary, the shift in focus to the customers led me to learn that they want us to deliver artwork to them in less than three days. More than three days and they don’t find it worth it to sign up for our service.
With five regular customers in the early days, there was no way I could deliver any artwork to all of them in three days. Hence, I hired our first designer even if it meant an increase in operating costs. Our delivery speed went up to 24-hour turnaround. Sometimes we even managed to achieve same-day delivery.
Customer satisfaction shot up. Since then, many customers come back to us. Knowing this works, we baked it into our design processes as part of our differentiating factor from other competitors.
Choose Only One Thing to Be Unique
Your service or product may cover one or many features and benefits. Out of so many features, you just have to pick one that serves your customers best, based on your judgement.
In my case, I promise my customers the following list:
- Maximum three-day delivery
- Conversion-focused designs
- World-class customer service
- Quality check by senior designer
- Unlimited 30-day money-back guarantee
The list can go on, but these are the top of my list. Out of these top six benefits, I chose 30-day money-back guarantee as our unique differentiator.
It doesn’t have to be exciting to all your prospects to begin with. It just has to be something a group of your target market will want to have. Hence, I chose to give 30 days of unlimited free design service, not seven days, not 14 days.
With the term unlimited, suddenly graphic design doesn’t sound so boring. This single item has since been the only thing people come to us for. It’s now our killer marketing asset.
To single one item out of a long list of features can be a struggle. But this is key because, in a crowded market, your prospects have many of the same things to choose from as well.
Once you show you can do one thing and do it really well, that’s when your offer becomes irresistible and your target audience can’t ignore you.