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Thursday, July 31, 2008

(How to) dare to be different

This image is from an intriguing blog,, which follows Planning Commissioners Journal editor Wayne Senville as he travels across the country. You may find niche ideas and perspectives by looking outside your home community.

A couple of blog entries previous, I posted a question from a recently established central Florida general contractor, in business four months, asking me how they could escape the crunch of price competition. Before composing my response, I visited the contractor's website -- a truly professional, well-thought document, graphically appealing, which expressed credibility and experience.

I yawned.

Not out of disrespect, but out of marketing sadness. They were another general contractor, not particularly new, not particularly different, and certainly capable of doing seemingly anything. They hadn't discovered the power of uniqueness, of the niche, of that 'something special' which sets the extraordinary from the ordinary, so I had to bring the bad news. Essentially, I said, bug your friends and family, and your previous clients from before -- they'll give you a try, and perhaps pay a little more than the others. Eventually, you'll be able to build your reputation and connections, and a satisfied client base, and you'll thrive with your repeat business and referrals. Then, there is little wrong with boring conventionality.

So how do you escape this trap from the start? Think fine tuning. Think narrow. Think niche. Then test your assumptions. Before you go off the deep end, see if anyone will buy what you have to sell (without investing piles of money or up front capital in the process). You won't have 100 per cent certainty when you start, but you'll be a whole lot better off than the person who says, "I can do anything -- just give me the chance."

Now, if you think I can suggest the specific niche you should start at in some ready-made checklist, you are engaging in wishful thinking. But I'll still push forward with some thoughts that will give you clues to answers which will work for your own business.

Can you be the "first of" within a distinctive geographical area?

The wider your focus, the narrower the geography. "We are the general contractor for Halfway, Oregon," might work if you truly are the first contractor there. (Some people with long memories will remember when Haflway turned its name to for money and computers, as part of the late 90s era Internet marketing gimmick.) Think neighbourhood, community, ethnicity, or the like in defining your "first of".

Can you be the "first of" within a specialty, say, for a tongue in cheek example, "We are the first water-free mechanical contractors?" You could be the first contractor who focuses in hypo-allergenic construction, "The peanut-free contractor".

Service uniqueness
Are your hours of service, payment terms, or procedures unique, and of special value to the people you are serving?

For example: "Our hours of business are on weekends and from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. overnight, only." (Marketing cleanups, commercial fit-ups, and the like.) Or "pay us anything but cash" -- and co-ordinate in advance a valuation scheme to convert the in-kind goods to cash or barter value elsewhere.

Can you tie your marketing with a respected, recognized organization with influence, and link your business to theirs."We are the general contractors of . . . Church". (In this case, in exchange, you might agree to tithe a portion of your revenues or profits to the church building fund.)

Now, you think you have the right idea. How do you know if it will work in practice? You need to put your thoughts to the test. The more radical, the more creative and the more wacky the idea, the more likely you are to have incredible success -- or an incredible flop. I recommend you try a few things to validate your thoughts before diving in deeply. The challenge in testing your thoughts is to come up with some realistic way of seeing whether people will actually buy what you have to sell, before putting any money into the process. Be wary of people who say: "That's a great idea -- let me know when you are ready." After you spend a few million bucks setting up, you go back to the same people and they will often say, "Maybe, later.". . .

But there are ways you can test without burning your budget.

Has the idea worked elsewhere (in other similar communities?)
Talk to people int he communities, listen, and see first hand the idea in application. Is the demographic similar to yours. You might even find an affiliation with the business in the other community is possible and meet someone moving to or related to someone in your area. You can then test with these potential clients.

Can you get people to pay you a deposit or even the whole price up front for your idea. (You could offer a pre-payment discount)?
This is actually how I got started. I had the idea for a local publication, but didn't know if it would work. So I went around and sold enough advertising, and collected enough up-front cash, to publish the first issue. The printer and design house were surprised when I showed up with the certified checks for the prepayment of services at their end: They had been burned too many times by wanna-be publishers. I'm still in the business 20 years later.

If you can't get money, can you get a contract or written commitment from a few clients for the service?
This again proves seriousness.

Will big name or well-recognized local or market sector leaders support your idea; do they think it is good and worthy of their recommendations?
If they say 'yes', you have a shot.

Now, I'm not advocating in the testing phase shouting from the rooftop to announce your launch; but equally, I don't think you will get far if you are worried about secrecy to the point you think someone will steel your brilliant idea if you open your trap before you get started. Few will. But I wouldn't test unless I am ready to launch right away or in the near future. Procrastination will, indeed, invite competitors to set up in your space.

You will never be completely 'ready' but there is a time to get off the fence and jump in the water.

Note I am not advocating blindly rushing into things, but equally, you should appreciate you won't be able to firm up everything and enter the business with 100 per cent confidence of success. Somethings you can only learn by messing up, by making mistakes, and just getting started, so you've got to go forward.

There. That is my simple start-up advice. Think specialty, focus, uniqueness, and then test your assumptions shortly before launch. But don't be afraid to start up by breaking all these rules -- if you have lots of friends and connections who respect and know you, and will give you business to start. Then, indeed, boring and bland may be best. You don't need to rock the boat when it is full.

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