July 21st, 2008

The path less travelled by

in: Communicate, Create, Standing out, Startups

What can a bookstore teach Canadians about positioning their companies?

Marketing is increasingly about attention, and less about product.

Most competent people can build a competent product or service. But in today’s world of instant attention, it’s often more about how to succeed in the market than how to get the product right.

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I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with Robin Axon, formerly of VenturesWest (and candidate for the coolest cyborg name of a VC ever.) We were chatting, as often happens among Canadian entrepreneurs, about The Canadian Ailment. Despite tremendous competence in product design, we never seem to make it North of the Border in the same way the US does. Even US bookstores, apparently, know this instinctively.  But more on that later; back to Robin.

He had a pretty clear theory about what ails us, which I’ll paraphrase (badly) here:

Canadians try to succeed with a product, but Americans succeed with a market strategy.

Ask a Canadian why they’ll win, and they’ll probably cite a feature or a technical merit. “We have 30% more capacity” or “ours lets you sort by user.” By contrast, an American entrepreneur is as likely to cite an unfair advantage: “I know a guy,” or “there’s a new law coming out next week,” or maybe even, “I have a way to get every college kid using this in three months.” Anything that will make them stand out in the RFI, on the search engine, or at the watercooler.

Think about the recent Twitter exodus. We’ve seen Plurk (Twitter with timelines!) and Identi.ca (Twitter, but open source!) At the same time, you’ve got Friendfeed (“Our word-of-mouth comes from frustrated Twitter users, especially the heavyweights!”)

Which one sounds American? You guessed it: Friendfeed.

To be sure, Plurk and Twitter look great. I’ll probably get a lot of heat for dumping on fellow Canadians, particularly those with visibility and traction. But I think the point is still valid: Standing out is something that isn’t on most Canadians’ radars.

This is especially true for those who haven’t built a company with a global demand. Sadly, most Canadians that think like this have long since moved South, and there are precious few left in Canada.

One way to find your angle is to do the opposite of what people expect.  I was reminded of this in San Francisco a few weeks ago.

California’s recent legalization of gay marriage has created a flurry of weddings. If you wanted to capitalize on this, you might start organizing events, or ordaining ministers, or promoting your hotel as an ideal venue.

I walked past an enterprising bookstore that zigged when others had zagged. Their window display? Divorce and broken marriages.

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Intentional or not, they’d taken a very different tack. If everyone’s talking marriage, why not focus on separation?

Whether it’s a renewed interest in pre-nuptial agreements or people trying to leave someone because now they can marry their longtime love interest, it’s a different approach that stands out.

If you’re trying to stand out from the crowd, spend some time thinking about opposites. If people charge a lot, make it free. If people make it free, charge a lot. If everyone worries about proprietary, go open source. If everyone’s seen as high-tech, stake out the low-tech position. It’s an excellent mental game to play, and often leads to new strategies and angles.

It’s a message that’s echoed in books like Blue Ocean Strategy: Don’t compete on the terms of the market — find a new market. The alternative is to race after everyone else, and see if you can beat them at a game whose rules they’ve already defined.

Tim O’Reilly said as much at Foocamp (by way of Jesse Robbins, via Twitter): “Going after the money is the surest way to end up chasing someone’s ass.”

Instead, try going after the different. Take the one less travelled by. You’ll either fail spectacularly or find your groove.

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