In his new book “Zero to One” and in this awesome Stanford startup lecture Peter Thiel talks about how companies need to differentiate such that you have no competitors.
That sounds ridiculous, if you’re a consultant, since there are so many other consultants out there beating their chests, all saying they’re knowledgeable, care for clients, and such.

And you could narrow the definition of the “competition” by geography, but that’s artificial.
I live in Plymouth, MN, so I might say I’m the best social analytics person in this town of 70,576 people.
No other people seem to rank for this search in Google, not even me, though it would be easy enough:

But that’s because there is nothing inherently special about social analytics in this town versus any other town.

A friend of mine is a well-traveled conference speaker, and he brings his book around wherever he goes.
He touts his book as a best-seller on Amazon. The credibility wins him clients.
But his dirty secret is that his chosen category is so narrow that his meager dozen book sales are enough to put him at #1 on Amazon.

Choosing your differentiation by vertical versus geography is actually okay, since industry requires specialized expertise and contacts.
Thiel talks about how it’s better to be #1 in a small market instead of just another player in a big one.

In the former, you have passionate raving fans who are your biggest asset.
In the latter, you have to fight for every dollar.

And if you’re doing what you truly love, your deep passion will show through.
You won’t be intimidated by those who are more knowledgeable than you, since they’re partners in your cause, not enemies.
You’re generating enough inbound revenue that you’re not fighting others for dollars.

Good advice, but how does someone who doesn’t yet have an established area of expertise build upon this?
What if you’re a student who is still in college and can’t see beyond local retail jobs in your hometown.
It all sounds good, in theory, especially when told by folks who are already successful and talented.

“But how does this apply to me?” they say, leading to false hope and inaction.

The answer is taking incremental steps in something we call “personal branding”.
Even if you don’t have a specialization, it’s the act of starting that will open up opportunities.
The small steps of setting up your profile on different networks, setting up Google Alerts on things you’re interested in, and writing short notes about what you observe is what counts.
Along the way, you’ll build a network, which will lead to the expertise when you need it.
You won’t be able to see in advance how this will unfold– you just need to get going.

Perhaps you’re self-conscious about your writing skills– then just blog for 5 minutes a day.
Sure, your initial blog posts will suck, but I promise you that you’ll get way better and faster.
Do this for 6 weeks straight and you’ll be surprised how far you’ve come.

Don’t tell me about how busy you are. We all are.
Spend 15 minutes a day doing this.

That’s 15 minutes less surfing the web, watching your favorite show, or whatever.
You’ve got plenty of areas you can find that time. Just don’t steal from sleep.

Of the people who say they’re busy, I notice they can cut 15 minutes a day of complaining time.
The same is true of people making New Year’s resolutions to do something– don’t be one of those people.

My favorite technique is to just act immediately instead of procrastinating to later.
In the time you would have spent shuffling things around, you could have already done a couple small things.

The “so called” competitors you have are likely stuck in neutral in their content marketing and branding efforts.
And if they’re any good, you’ll want to reach out to them to partner, to create content together and to work together on projects.

When you’re sharing your knowledge openly, then you create an atmosphere where others reciprocate.
Rather than being a pompous know-it-all, you’re admitting where you need help, actively soliciting feedback.
And this attracts empathy, creates conversation, and drives the sort of clients that you want.

You don’t need a sales team, since nobody has to cold call or bang on doors.
Clients come to you, they pay you what you ask, and you’re treated well.

You’re happy to work with them and they’re delighted with you, even when you screw up.
They’re so pleased that they create content with you as willing advocates of your techniques.
You’ve made them look good and they reciprocate.

This, in turn, draws in more people who want to work for you (which you tell them is “with you”, not “for you”).
The content that you’ve shared so freely also doubles as training material for new staff.
It becomes the process that all your people follow in how you execute projects in checklist fashion.

All your people follow the learn-do-teach (LDT) triangle principle.
You lead by your knowledge (learn) and example (do) and others know leadership comes from learning and doing first.

If you’re at the stage where you don’t have something you’re known for, just get going.
You might have to drop a few clients or projects to free up the time to work on the good ones.
So fire those bad clients and drop those bad behaviors.

Make your mission so clear that if you were to ask someone who knows you what you do, their answer is clear.

Are all your people practicing personal branding?
If not, then, paradoxically, it’s in your interest to build up their attractiveness to other companies.
By making them more employable elsewhere, you’ll lose those who aren’t loyal, but generate so much more from those you keep.

People who are really good can go anywhere, anyway.
They’re not machines or inventory to manage, but athletes to be coached.
You’re not a boss or a manager, but a leader and inspirer.

If you’re a student, seek out folks who genuinely care about your personal success.
As they move up in the world, they’ll take you along with them.

So the question is not “Who are your competitors?’
Rather ask, “Who are your friends and allies?”

Do you have a list of these folks that you want to actively cultivate?

© Dennis Yu. All Rights Reserved.

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