Just what can Apple, Google teach us about avoiding competition in business?

In this age of hyper connectivity, if you think that you’re in direct competition with someone else, there’s something wrong with your business strategy. For many businesses, there’s an angle or a niche just waiting to be exploited — and the key to unlocking this success is to not compete at all.

Look at Google and Apple, for example; Apple no more just make computers than Google are just in the search business. When you elect to use one of Google’s business software applications like Gmail or Wave, or when you choose to buy an iMac or MacBook Pro from Apple, you’re buying into a statement-making philosophy — Apple and Google exude minimalist simplicity.

For those that choose to compete with such industry behemoths, they choose to engage in a battle with two businesses that can churn out complementary innovations with unerring and repetitious ease, designed to stultify even the hardiest of business strategies — just ask Microsoft, a competitor to both Apple and Google and a company that is losing in key markets to both.

Controlling the business experience

Apple control the whole computer experience from the moment you walk into one of their stores, even beyond you pulling out your credit card. From then on, you’re within the gears and cogs of a very slick, highly artificial but incredibly refined and precisely managed event, culminating not in a purchase, as is the case with their competitors, but at the moment you begin using your Apple product for the first time. Why? Because it’s about the experience.

For those who use Google’s new Wave, an innovative collaborative communications tool, or Gmail, their highly respected web email client, you’re working within an ultra-efficient software environment that apes the features of bigger commercial software like Microsoft Office, but instead gives you just what you need to accomplish the task at hand, and for free.

By way of a disclaimer, I’ll freely admit that not everyone has the luxury of moving their businesses around in such a way as to reduce their exposure to competition. But for those that are nimble and fleet-footed enough to spot a niche, it’s worth expending the effort and exploring those gaps in the market.

So what’s the take-away moral of this story? Your task is to look at what you do, compare that to what your competitors do and create an experience that is so compelling, so enhanced and so client-centric that the added value nature of your service is reason enough for those clients to justify the expense of choosing you over anyone else.

The term premiumization springs to mind, and while apt, it’s a buzzword I personally dislike. And here’s some ideas about how to distance yourself from those around you: And here’s some ideas about how to distance yourself from those around you:

  • Personalize your service from beginning to end.
  • Think about your clients needs and anticipate in advance what they might want, then…
  • … Exceed the expectations / needs of your clients.
  • If possible, avoid competing on price and concentrate on quality.
  • Demonstrate just how much you know your industry and start your own blog.
  • Keep things simple, avoid buzzwords and don’t be afraid to say no!

Today, more than at any other time, there are just too many businesses doing the same things. Between differentiation and diversification hides a strategy that will help you build a service-driven business that places quality and your clients before all else.

The perception of business success

As business people, it’s surprisingly easy to forget the very things that make you money day in, day out. I call this “Organic Knowledge” — you know that you know these things, but you either forget or fail to see the importance of what you know. So the perception is, you feel you know less than you should and hardly ever feel as though you know enough.

And this is where perception plays a hugely important role in things. First of all, it’s probably as well that you don’t feel that you know enough. This way, you remain competitive and you’re likely to want to stay on top of things.

In business, there’s always one more mountain to climb

I have a habit of helping people. I often use analogies to pull down the negative perceptions people might have of themselves and their businesses.

One such analogy was that of a friend cast as a mountaineer. Here is a self-imposed challenge, one of conquering one mountain after another.

In business, each new project you undertake can seem like a mountain to climb. Planning is essential, and as the project progresses, resources can become more rarified, the chances of failure often increase and the further you go and the more difficult things become, the less likely it is that if you struggle, someone will be there able to help. But that that’s not always the case and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Depending on how long you’ve been in business, you could have conquered many a mountain! But despite your experience, you’ll keep making the same mistakes along the way. This is sometimes attributable to being reactive rather than proactive, which is a precarious ledge to be on.

Admiring the view your business affords you

As I said, planning is essential for many reasons. First of all, good planning will afford you the time to stop and take a breather. Here’s your chance to take a more holistic view of what you’ve achieved, not just within the scope of your current challenge, but over all.

From where you’re standing, if you happen to look up, all you’re going to see is a distant peak, towering above you. But if you take the time to look back over your shoulder, you’ll surely see a chain of mountains snaking away from you, each one conquered and done with.

“So what did I learn from my previous challenges?” That’s the question you need to be asking yourself. What organic knowledge did you bring to your current project, and what new knowledge did you pick up along the way?

How you manage your known and recently acquired knowledge is up to you. But it’s essential that you have some method of managing and extracting this knowledge.

At some point, you’re either going to struggle or fail. But there’s value in failure, too. Smart people perform an autopsy on the dead project. They tease open the remains and look for tell-tail signs of the cause of death. Knowing how you fail could well help you insulate your business from future failures.

Regaling others with stories of business adventures

As is often the case, you will find yourself at some business gathering, function or networking event. As you move around, speaking with various people, there’s one question no businessman or businesswoman can hope to avoid: “So, what is that you do?” Or words to that affect.

If you can’t answer this question without thinking about it, there’s a chance you’re not clear about a lot of other things about your business, too.

“I help people make money from the Web. I help people work over the Web. I help people measure what they’re doing on the Web.”

There’s a ton of other stuff behind that simple response, of course, but that’s the cool thing about a well-worded reply — you encourage the person asking the question to ask even more questions about you, your business and what you do.

So understanding the full breadth & depth of your organic knowledge will pay dividends in the long run.

Knowing me, knowing you

Figuring out what it is that you know, or what you’re good at is often pretty difficult to pin down. You will often dismiss out of hand certain things as being boring, or two simple to really count. So in these situations, why not ask friends, colleagues, other business contacts or even clients what they think you’re good at.

Of course, be careful how you word such questions — maybe dress the question up as some kind of customer satisfaction survey, which might uncover even more valuable information. But that’s a topic in itself, well outside the remit of this discussion.

What you’ll get back might just surprise you.

So in the end, your biggest challenge might be one of self discovery. But if you approach this one challenge with the right mind set, it might be more of a mole hill than a mountain.

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “The perception of business success

The value of business knowledge

Adults don’t just pop into existence, fully educated and well-heeled. And the same applies to businesses — things need to be learned along the way. However, the expectations of our clients can be that the knowledge we apply to their projects is established, tried and fully tested. But it’s sometimes borrowed, or even totally new.

Sometimes, as designers and web developers, we’re learning on our client’s time. But that’s not a bad thing, nor is it unusual or wrong — we can’t know everything there is to know in our chosen field.

Client expectations of our business knowledge

Problem is, the expectations of our clients are such that 1. they sometimes fear the discovery process, as if we should already know these things; and 2. fail to see that the discovery process aspect of a project is not just essential but billable, too.

But let’s just look at things through the eyes of the client for a second, shall we? First of all, setting aside issues of copyright, IPR’s (Intellectual Property Rights) contracts and such, most clients would feel that whatever we learn on their time and their money should only be used on their projects and nowhere else.

After all, they can’t be expected to be the unofficial R&D lab’ for our other clients, some of which could be their competitors. But this is also a question of ethics; here, I don’t charge for anything I feel would be transferrable and — therefore — useful to another client, and instead charge for the execution and not the research and development process.

The thing is — and I know this is going to sound cliché and trite — we’re students of life and we’re also apprentices of our chosen professions, too. I would never claim to be an expert!

So I’m up-front and honest about the processes and explain the originality of what we’re doing. I’d even go as far as recommending you appraise the client as to which third parties you choose to involve, should that be the case.

There have been many occasions when I’ve taken on a project whose constituent parts exist only as outlines in my mind, right up until the point where I begin to do the planning work, whereupon I’m able to demonstrate my understanding of their needs, which the client and myself can then build upon.

This might sound weird to some people, but if it’s a programming or a creative design issue, I’m rarely vexed, it’s more a question of time and the amount thereof — few of my clients have posed questions that I’m unable to resolve.

The value of our time to our clients

But then the client’s expectations can be quite different, too. Sometimes their opinion of what we’re doing for them is that our job is the easiest thing in the world!

We might make this computer stuff look easy simply because we’re sat down much of the time, but the mental heavy lifting is very much a burden — and at times tiring. After all, don’t pilots stay seated why flying an aircraft? And it’s not everyone who can fly a jet fighter or a transatlantic passenger jet.

It’s during these times that the perception of our success can be skewed somewhat. So some education is in order, and here’s your chance to bring your clients up to speed with what your job entails by inviting them to the office — let them sit with you and learn first hand the time it takes to turn Widget A from blue to red.

My feeling is that most of the perceived “us & them” client versus supplier arguments that emerge are almost entirely borne out of not knowing or understanding what we’re doing.

Talk to your clients and ask them what they think, and what they feel. Allay their fears with a little light education and you too could prevent Project X taking on a life of its very own, devouring your time, consuming all of the good-will currency you’ve banked with your clients in the process.

Berryman Glass Recycling — website development and blog

After many months of planning, designing and web development, the new Berryman website is live.

Berryman Glass Recycling is Britain’s largest purchaser and recycler of waste glass. Founded almost 90 years ago, they’re now looking forward, and meeting tomorrow’s challenges, both in terms of maintaining a technological lead, as well as carving out a presence for themselves on the new social web.

Berryman are a progressive business, so the potential for expanding their activities (to include video as well as adopting more aspects of social media, for example) is encouraging.

Berryman now have a place on the web around which they can build various other activities, such as using their website as a point of entry for exhibition attendees to follow up a meeting with one of their team, or as a way of publicizing their activities and various recent business successes.

Berryman Glass Recycling

If you’d like to know more about the specifics of the project, take a look at the Berryman Glass Recycling case study, as well as visuals on the portfolio page.

10 personal branding habits of the professionals

One of the many keys to success is habitual professionalism. So I’m going to explore ten personal branding and brand management habits of the professionals.

As I see it, the number one goal of personal branding, brand identity building and brand management on the web is to make your name synonymous with a certain phrase, or a collection of phrases which you feel best represent you and what you do — which I alluded to in my previous article on brand building.

Personal Branding and Brand Management

If you’re serious about personal branding and brand management, here’s ten things you’ll see the professionals doing:

  1. Comments are your calling cards. Be sure to use these as an opportunity to draw the focus of the ‘blog post towards your comments. Make sure you drop in a relevant link to an article of yours in the URL field. That way, you’re not just making a statement, you’re opening the door for bringing the dialogue to your own ‘blog article. A word of caution here: misuse of this idea is essentially comment spam. If you’re going to comment, then make sure you’re adding value to the article you’re commenting on, or don’t do it at all, OK?
  2. Think and act like a professional. Don’t get drawn into heated debates, unless you’re sure you can do so without just throwing away your dignity and losing some serious credibility into the bargain. As I’ve discovered — much to my amusement — I’m both a contrarian and a conflict writer. Don’t be afraid of contradicting or correcting someone, but be damn sure that you’re right and you’re not going to annoy and antagonize people in the process.
  3. Have a theme? Well stick to it! You don’t see too many truly successful general ‘blogs. Most might start that way, but as those few that stick around longer than twelve months will attest to, some trimming of the excess fat inevitably takes place. The web rewards those that carve out their own niche. Working within a niche and becoming an authority within that niche is better than being one voice amongst many in a crowded room.
  4. Be seen, be known. Remember what I said about your comments of other people’s ‘blogs? Right, well there’s other places you ought to be hangin’ out, too. There are some notable social web venues up and down the internet superhighway, and you need to make a few well-chosen stops along the way. But choose wisely; don’t just sign up for every social network there is. Doing so will be an over-commitment on your part and you’ll be spread too thinly. Begin small, but think big and long-term, then work outwards from there.
  5. Don’t be afraid to sing your own praise. To begin with, few people will know of you, who you are or what you do — so you need to be seen. If you’ve had some recent successes (strong linkage from a major website or ‘blog, high praise from a client or a notable mention in a publication) then talk about it. Better yet, create you own media page, like the one here on Octane. Use that one success as a driver to help you with the next one, wherever that may come from.
  6. Be consistent with your image. Every blog post, every comment, every instant message, every email. If you feel that you’ve got a ‘house style’ then apply that style wherever you go. Some may like your style, others may loathe it, but for me, that’s where you want to be. I’d rather have a load of people hating and praising me, than have just a few think that I’m all right.
  7. Be an opportunist. If news breaks on a story that’s very much local to your topic of choice, make a move and get your thoughts / opinions / ideas out there first. However, be sure to put the emphasis on quality and not speed. There’s no point being the first out there if all you’re doing is saying: “Hi!” Sometimes, it’s a well to be fashionably late. Over time, as your name spreads, those that know you will wait. Additionally, being bad-mouthed could be a chance to make friends and influence people. Charm the pants off them, schmooze, cajole and you might just win them over.
  8. Get a ‘blog and get ahead! ‘Blogs routinely outrank websites on the search engines for a number of key reasons. The main reasons are that a typical ‘blog has a constant stream of ever-changing content, there are a great number of out-bound links to other sources, and there’s usually a community of people commenting on your articles. In addition to this, make sure people can do things with your articles. By that I mean make sure you have some way of syndicating your articles, either by a newsletter or from an RSS feed, sharing with friends via email or sharing on a social network.
  9. Be seen, be known .. be available. So you’ve got your audience, you’ve got some notoriety, but you’re aloof! Someone might catch a quick comment exchange with you occasionally, but that’s usually it. Make sure people can contact you. What you’ll have noticed is that some of these suggestions are about being a shameless self-promotional whore. As bad as that might sound to you, you’re going to be competing with people who may have less moral and ethical restraints than yourself, so you need an edge.
  10. Be yourself. To make this kind of thing work, there are a few prerequisites, which I hope I’ve covered above. But there’s one prerequisite to rule them all. It’s there when you’re commenting on ‘blogs. It’s there when you’re talking to someone and explaining yourself to them for the first time. It’s even there when things go wrong and you make that graceful recovery. That quality, that essential personal ingredient is charisma.

Success rarely comes to you, and even trying to meet it half way often isn’t enough. As for me, well, I’m still fighting the good fight, and I know what I need to be doing. Hopefully, after reading this little lot, you do too.

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “10 Personal Branding habits of the pros