Be What You Are–And Leverage It!

Having spent most of my working life in the tech industry, I’ve seen and been part of a lot of change.  Some was good and exciting.  Some change was not very good but definitely exciting. Some wasn’t really change at all.  Through it all I’ve seen new categories of products come onto the market and flourish while others, equally promising, live short, brutish lives and become supplanted by the Next Big Thing.

That said, there are a number of lessons I’ve taken away from these ups and downs that have applicability for business owners and leaders in any market.  First and foremost, is to know what you are as a business. Without that clear understanding, it’s hard to be successful.  I know that sounds self-evident, but often owners or leadership has a different sense of the business than the public’s perception, or for that matter, the perception of their own employees.  As a crude example, if you’re a late night burger joint, be a late night burger place.  Don’t think of yourself as a fine dining establishment.  If you do, you’ll invest in the wrong things, prioritize activities incorrectly, and most likely spend way more money than you should.  This is a silly example, of course, but the core message is not: be clear about what market need you serve, whether it’s food, merchandise, technical or creative services, whatever.  Being grounded in knowing what you are here and now is foundational to thinking about the future, whether it’s more of the same or aspirational.

Second, don’t invent a category for yourself unless it makes sense to an audience broader than yourselves.  There’s a fine line between differentiating your business by describing it in a way that makes it appear that you are something else (more, better, different) than your competitors and describing it in such a way that potential customers can’t understand what you do. This is a particular problem in the tech-related world where companies have a tendency to swarm around a category until the market picks a winner or consolidation takes hold, but it can happen in any segment.  The last thing you want is to have to say “well, we’re sort of like company x but we’re different…” that brings you right back to the mainstream but also on the defensive.

Third, as long as you are clear about what you are and what you truly offer, spend the time to make sure the world knows it.  Yes, market your business.  Whether it’s social media, print advertising, email marketing, sandwich boards or bus wraps, if you don’t take the time to let your market know you’re out there, all you’ll have is word of mouth referrals and dumb luck.  There are some business segments where referrals and networking are the preferred ways of being known, of course, but the world’s noisy place and decisions are often made quickly—don’t be left behind because you’re not visible to your market.

Fourth, be sure to test the market through both current customers and prospects. Make sure what you believe you are offering in terms of products and services, reputation and value are, in fact, what they perceive.  If yes, you’ve got a good path to grow the business pipeline.  If there’s a disconnect, though, you need to head back to the whiteboard to understand the misalignment and correct it.  Not only do you as a business leader have to look in the mirror, so to speak, you have to face your customers and prospects and let them reflect their perceptions back to you.  Such clarity is critical.

Lastly, know where you want to go over time. You’re not compelled to capture a market, expand across the country or the world, become the biggest name in a category unless that’s really what you want for the business.  If it is, then build and work your plans to get there.

Even if that’s not your goal, however, you still need to plan.  Without a plan and metrics to provide input about performance your business is at risk.  Customers, even longstanding ones, can disappear or change direction.  Mergers happen.  Acquisitions happen.  Changes in leadership happen. Competition gets fiercer. Especially if a handful of customers represent a large portion of your annual revenue, you had better have a plan in place to diversify your customer base in order to have a healthy revenue future.  As the saying goes, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.  Never stand pat with what you have, since it can disappear without warning.

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