When I was a little boy, my grandfather gave me some advice: He suggested I always march to the rhythm of my own drum. While he said it made perfect sense for me to appreciate others and what they did, in the end what would make me unique was me. Of course, I was too little to quite understand what he meant. Soon thereafter, he passed away. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve started to appreciate his wisdom.
Why do I bring this up? Because I increasingly see companies, both big and small, often focusing too much on their competitors and not focusing on being unique. A few weeks ago, when I stopped by at the Square offices, COO Keith Rabois, in response to a question about his competition, succinctly said it was what he and his company does which will determine the outcome for the company.
If one sets the rules, then there is a distinct advantage when it comes to winning. However, if a company spends all its energy trying to be the same as another, it has already lost the game. It’s letting someone else define the agenda. Instead of trying to be great at what they do, companies start to come-up with reactive and mediocre strategies that are well, mediocre.
Let’s take this year’s big news: tablets, or rather, rivals of Apple’s iPad. HP announced its WebOS-based TouchPad. Motorola announced Xoom, which is powered by Google’s Honeycomb tablet-oriented Android OS. There are scores of others that have been announced and/or are waiting in the wings. They all have one thing in common: They are desperately trying to be the iPad. HP couldn’t resist using “pad” in the name. Others may not have the name, but are essentially trying to beat iPad on what was known in the PC world as “feeds and speeds.”
The problem is that the minute Apple announces its rumored iPad 2, all these devices are going to take on a look of last season’s couture. What Apple does so well is that it doesn’t pay too much attention to what others are doing, and instead, builds what it feels is the right product. Same goes for other iconic brands such as Mercedes.
The big companies can be excused for catching this “keep up with Joneses” disease, but what is inexcusable is startups spending all their energy on trying to keep tabs on their competitors, taking a cue from their rivals (and often copying them) and in the process, not focusing on what really matters: their product and strategy as it relates to their customers.
In my professional career, especially as an entrepreneur, I found that whenever I did things my way, I found not only great satisfaction, but also found an edge that was entirely my own. When I’ve deviated from that approach, I’ve found things have started to go wrong. Today, the world of news is commoditized and has turned into churnalism; the way we stand out is by focusing on analysis and our own unique twist on news. It might not be for everyone’s taste, but there are many who find that useful.
In my favorite TV show, House, Dr. Lisa Cuddy, when trying to convince Dr. House that they should be together, said that what they had was unique and not common. “Because common is just common.” Next time, remember that.