Recently I was invited to present at the Student Opportunities Festival. The event was partly organised by NaSTA, the National Student Television Association. My full presentation shared my experience of going from student media to running a video production company.
After the presentation I was asked a number of questions, including “How do you find your business’ unique selling point?”
You can hear my response in the short video above. Alternatively, continue reading for my expanded take on this topic…
What Is A Unique Selling Point?
If you’re in the process of starting your own business, you’ve probably come across the concept of the unique selling point. (Often referred to as a USP.)
If you haven’t, the idea is that every business needs something unique that sets it apart from the competition.
It may be the quality of your products or services; it could be the speed of your service; or it could be that you’re a specialist in a certain field. What makes your business unique is – well – unique to your business.
Finding Your USP
Finding your USP is a staple “business building” exercise – at least in business books and classrooms. If you know what your business’ unique selling point is, you can use that to promote your business and find success. (In theory.)
As a result, many budding entrepreneurs are tasked with finding their unique selling point – often before they’ve even secured their first order. If you can’t tell, I think this is premature. I’ve found that the desire to be unique can encourage early entrepreneurs to think that they must be radically new and different in their approach.
The reverse implication of the USP is that if you’re doing the same thing as your competition you’re going to fail. In reality, if what your competition is doing works, there’s no real problem with doing something fundamentally similar. (Obviously you should never rip off a competitor – but offering a similar product or service “your own way” is OK in my view.)
Over the years I’ve seen new entrepreneurs come into the market with fantastic, novel ideas, but with very little of it grounded in commercial reality. Often it doesn’t work out. Sadly, for many of these entrepreneurs, if they’d dropped the manufactured USP they probably would have had far great success. From what I’ve seen, chasing a USP blinds them from exploring more sustainable opportunities, which they can later develop in a unique way.
There are very few truly original ideas that haven’t been explored yet. And if they haven’t, it’s usually for good reason.
- Before Facebook there was Myspace.
- Google didn’t create the first Search Engine.
- Apple was far from the first computer or mobile phone company.
- Tesla didn’t invent the car.
- McDonald’s didn’t create the burger, or the fast food restaurant.
- Brewdog was not the first beer company.
The list goes on.
These companies succeeded because they took an existing idea and put their own spin on it. Yet none of them offer a truly radical departure from the core product or service that existed before. Fundamentally, what these companies do isn’t any different from their competition.
A Tesla car still has four wheels and drives on the same roads as other cars. An Apple computer still has a web browser, email client and word processor. A McDonalds burger still looks like, tastes like and is a burger.
In my experience, there’s a fine line between developing a unique business and trying to build a business around a novelty.
For someone who hasn’t yet established their career, focussing too heavily on a niche or novel idea can limit the view of your available opportunities. In my view, this should be avoided at all costs in the early stages.
I’m going to frame this in the context of video production.
Let’s say there’s a video editor. In an effort to differentiate their offering, they start advertising themselves as someone who exclusively edits footage that other people have filmed on their smartphones.
Holidays, weddings, Instagram videos… This must be a huge market. Everyone has a smartphone. Seems like a great USP, right?
No, it’s a gimmick.
Who actually needs their smartphone videos professionally edited? Not that many people. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and guess that it’s a tiny fraction of smartphone owners. (I’d say less than 1%.)
So not only is there no market in the novelty, but this editor has also placed themselves outside of the far bigger editing market. If I was approached by someone who marketed themselves this way, my initial thought would be “Do they know how to handle professional footage?”
What a missed opportunity for someone who might otherwise be a really skilled, competent video editor.
A Common Pitfall
I’ve seen many new entrepreneurs take approaches like this. Often, they lose sight of the bigger opportunities in front of them by committing to a novelty – all in the name of having a USP.
Usually there’s no real market for the novelty they’re pursuing, but they convince themselves it’s the right way forward. Their fixation on tapping into a perceived market blinds them from seeing what’s beneath their nose. All they’re chasing is a gimmick.
Discovering What Makes You Unique
It’s important, when trying to identify your USP, not to overlook the fact that you may already be unique just by doing what you do. Pulling things back, by nature of human existence, the way we approach things as individuals bakes uniqueness into everything we do.
For most, this is more than enough to give you a unique approach to running your business from day one. The only catch is that identifying this uniqueness and capitalising on it is a slow process of doing what you do, then trying to figure out what makes people like it. This type of USP can’t be manufactured. It’s not something you can brainstorm in a classroom, or in the pages of a notebook.
My Experience Finding A USP
When I first left university, I had no idea what made me different to others. How could I? I was a graduate, fresh out of academia, with no real work experience to speak of. I didn’t have the experience to know what others in the industry were really doing.
Seven years on, I now have a much better idea of what makes me different to others. I’ve had clients offer comparative feedback, and I’ve worked with enough freelancers as a client to understand how other people operate their businesses.
I now know that we’re very flexible in our approach, that we’re reliable, and that we’re highly customer focussed. We have company values that define how we run our business, and we work with people who align with them. Our approach isn’t revolutionary by any means, but it’s enough to distinguish us from others who have different values. Sometimes that’s all the uniqueness you need.
Additionally, having a specialism can provide difference without a gimmick thrown on top.
By example, at Southpoint Films, we’re a corporate video production company. We already have the “corporate” specialism compared to other video production companies. And in the digital marketing sector, which is where a lot of our work is, we’re already a specialist compared to a digital marketing agency who may offer video as a service in addition to web design, graphic design and SEO. That makes us unique from the get-go.
Developing A Niche Naturally
Another thing I’ve noticed is that we’ve developed a niche regarding the type of clients we work with. This isn’t manufactured either. It’s come naturally from identifying which types of projects we enjoy working on and then building our portfolio around them. This adds additional uniqueness to our offering; We have experience in areas that our competitors don’t.
This wasn’t an explicit process that we went through. We didn’t sit down one day and say “this is the type of company we are now, remove everything from our portfolio that doesn’t fit.” It’s something that happened naturally over the many years that we’ve been running our business.
For every project featured on our portfolio, there are plenty of others that didn’t make the cut. In most cases this is for benign reasons, but sometimes it’s because a project wasn’t particularly enjoyable to work on, or maybe it’s not the type of video we want to be making anymore. Yet this process influences the type of work we get. Clients often gravitate towards companies who have a history in their industry or they choose companies who can demonstrate that they’re capable of making content that they like the look of.
For example, some of our earliest projects were music videos for local bands. I even filmed a wedding once. Those projects aren’t showcased on our website because we know it’s not what we do anymore. There’s nothing wrong with those projects – we just prefer doing the type of work we do now. Nowadays I’d rather refer those types of projects to someone who specialises in them, rather than take them on myself.
Advice For Developing Your Own Niche
When developing a niche, in my experience it’s best to cast your net wide then hone in as time goes on. It’s far better than twiddling your thumbs because you can’t get the exact work that you want on day one.
As soon as you start doing work of any description, you can then start nudging towards what you want to be doing eventually. If you’re a video editor who wants to become a colourist, use your early projects to refine your colour portfolio. If you want to become an aerial videographer, use a drone on every project you possibly can. And so on.
In my experience, this approach works far better than trying to dive into a niche immediately. Go too specific too early and you might find that you won’t gain traction, making your business unsustainable and ultimately unable to continue.
Take Your Time
As is the case with anything related to starting a business, it takes time to truly figure out what shape your business will take. It’s very rare to have a fully formed, fleshed out concept on day one. Be prepared to change your mind as you go along, and don’t be afraid to adapt as your ideas and the market develops.
I’ve written separately about how long it took me to start my business, but the reality is that my business is constantly growing and changing – especially during a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty.
If you’re thinking of starting your own business, or you’re already running one, I’d love to know what you think on this topic. Leave a comment below or get in touch to share your thoughts!
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