Differentiation

It’s the three-inch titanium wall between you and the loot. It’s the ghost you feel on your ceiling in the middle of the night. It’s the $64,000 question challenging your otherwise-grand business idea: How is your thing different and better?

This question has been dancing through my head for weeks. It’s one thing to have an idea that could make people’s lives better. I have those every day, and you probably do too. In fact, talk of “how to do things better” has graced watercooler after watercooler since some business wunderkind had the idea that our lives would be improved if we didn’t drink from the tap. However, barfing out some idea of how things could hypothetically be better is not unique. If only the ideas heard by the watercooler were judged in a void where “degree of improvement” was the sole arbiter of success, then the world might properly appreciate the value of a good idea.

But they aren’t and it doesn’t. My idea kicks eBay where it counts, while providing a service that person after person has agreed they could utilize. But the $64,000 question remains, because the 800 lbs gorilla is often only of peripheral concern to the new business. Big businesses tend to lumber along with scattered focus, and as a result, are easy to be negatively contrasted with a nimble startup if one focuses on the idealistic: “Could I do a certain thing better?”

The crucial gauge of the great idea, then, is no more how it compares to the gorilla than how it compares to everything else. Once I find a site that seems to be trying to do something similar, I ask: How do I compare to what these people are doing? How will I compare to them once they see my idea and start trying to copy it? And of course, how well is this business doing? Quite frankly, this final question is an annoying one to ask, because if they are doing well it means more competition, and if they’re doing poorly it means the need we’re trying to meet might not be as great as anticipated.

From what I can gather, it would seem that there are a lot of “entrepreneurs” who don’t have the tenacity or wherewithal to ask this question, and their site ends up missing the key point of differentiation. For example, Powersellers Unite provides a list of the 20 most successful eBay copycats, er, Internet auction marketplaces. You visit these sites, and you see very little to distinguish them from eBay, save that they €™re willing to make less money with lower or no fees.

It takes tremendous courage, tenacity, and perseverence to honestly evaluate a competing idea and confront the question of why that idea won €™t work and yours will. But it alone is what charges a €œgreat idea € with the power to become €œa great, successful idea. € Over the course of refining my great idea, I’ve focused on learning to be honest about the similarities, and persevere through them with an even greater understanding of where are the cracks in the fortress of competition. There is no second option for businesses that want a realistic chance to succeed.

Inertia

I had an interesting talk with an intelligent young man this evening, and it got me to thinking about an entrepreneurial question that runs right past mere entrepreneurship, and straight into the human condition. That question is: “Why aren’t people more productive?” Or, as my brain construes it: “Why do so many people watch TV five nights a week?”

The cynics will tell you it’s because we’re lazy and brainwashed. The idealists will say it is to relax and to understand the world we live in. The intelligent young man (who also had a name, “Ben”) said it’s because people will take the path of least resistance to personal satisfaction. I say “dunno.” I think Ben might be thinking along the right track, because the act of turning on television/turning off brain is easy easy enough to initiate, and it’s interesting for the first few minutes. But after those five glorious minutes of watching the contestant pick random briefcases in search of $1,000,000, the question re-surfaces: “Why aren’t people more productive?”

My best guess is that the watcher has failed to discover what it is that they’re really interested in. Because once you know what you love doing, you have an option that both passes time and prevents brain decay.

It’s not hard to see how this relates back to entrepreneurship. I consider myself a ridiculously lucky human to have been given a consciousness that innately craves challenges and is action-oriented. I enjoy thinking up and organizing ideas the same way that others enjoy stamp collecting, gossiping, or theatre. But despite the feelings of well-being that I bask in every time I tackle a new entrepreneurial challenge, it still takes some time to climb up the stairs before I get to sled down that hill. TV is the other way around. When you first turn it on, there is ramp-up pleasure to be derived, but after the brief fun, your brain turns off and an hour later you suddenly wake up feeling dirty.

I know that entrepreneurs aren’t always so hot with math, so I’ll work this one out for you. One hour of spare time + TV = 5 minutes fun, 55 minutes flub. One hour of spare time + hobby = 5 minutes pain, 55 minutes passion. I will not work out how those numbers extrapolate to an entire evening, because if you’re the TV watcher it would probably hurt your feelings. Suffice to say,

Harding: 1. America’s Favorite Past Time: 0. Booyah.

Welcome to 800 Steps to Entrepreneurial Success

Business consultant Karrie Kohlhaas pointed out to me today that the really successful entrepreneurs understand that all that work done to build a business for success isn’t really building a business at all. It’s building you.

In that spirit, I now embark upon my entrepreneurial self/business building. My site proper details my steps to this point, but all I have left from the sum of those experiences is a bunch fragmented memories. With this blog, that changes. The idea here is to chronicle the process of how big stuff happens, bit by bit by itsy bitsy bit.

What I expect will result from this exploration is a series of observations on the challenges and thrills of hatching a plan. Ideally, these observations will form a pattern from which meta-patterns will eventually manifest themselves. Through the back and forth of coalescing and isolating the meaningful lessons I come across during this journey, I reckon I’ll end up with either 800 steps to entrepreneurial success, or freezer-burn.