Differentiation hack: How to find your special something

What makes you different from your competition? In today’s world, few lucky startups can definitively say “we’re the only ones doing X,” with X being meaningful enough like truly inventing a brand new category, being the only Facebook partner in their country, etc. If you’re not in this rarified camp, don’t despair. In this post, we’ll share creative ways to tease out non-obvious-but-still-compelling differentiators that can serve you well whether you’re sending cold emails to prospects, pitching your company to reporters, or trying to get job candidates to join you. 

Here are five ideas for finding your special something, as well as tips on what to avoid.

Five ways to figure out your competitive differentiators

  1. Focus on benefits, not features. When they first hear about you, your prospective customers care about what your product will do for them, less about how exactly it will achieve that. “We will help you pass any security penetration test” — the benefit is clear. “Our cybersecurity product has 124 machine learning models that learn any possible kind of attack and automatically improve over time” — impressive-sounding, but unclear what’s in it for your customer.
  2. Focus on “revolution,” not “evolution.” Being more accurate, having better machine learning models, supporting twice as many integrations… they’re all good, but not eye-catching. Sure, predictive models that are 10% more accurate can mean millions of dollars in incremental revenue. But being the first to have predictive modeling for kids’ shoe sizes sounds way cooler in a cold email. 

    As the saying goes, Different is better than better. Try to find something that’s uniquely yours, even if it’s small. 
  3. Focus on the positive. Instead of cost-cutting, highlight revenue growth. Instead of “less hassle,” talk about “faster time to market” or “integration so easy you’ll be kissing your screen.” Discussing the positive associates your product with a positive outcome, and leads to a favorable brand perception.
  4. Flaunt your famous investor / board member / founder. One of our clients, an early-stage predictive analytics startup, competed fiercely in a crowded space with multiple well-funded companies. Their edge? The company was co-founded by a world renown Ivy League professor. We took advantage of that in any possible way and medium: mentioning her name in email campaigns, hosting a webinar with her, getting her conference speaking engagements.
  5. Your customer roster. We once worked with a startup with painful product-market fit challenges. The value proposition wasn’t clear, it was a solution searching for a problem, and the space was as crowded as Times Square on New Year’s Eve. However, what they lacked in product-market fit, they more than made up for with an impressive roster of customers. Our cold emails read like a “who’s who” list… and not much beyond that. We name-dropped logos into the subject line and email copy, and it did the trick — readers replied and asked for demos.

    No matter what industry you’re selling to, everyone wants to do what their peers are doing, and social proof of great logos is incredibly powerful. 
  6. Bonus: the rando. One of our clients’ competitors was a startup known for showing up to every industry conference with the entire team wearing bright green pants. Another startup was famous for sending the most delicious food gifts to their customers and prospects, year round. 

    While you can’t build a sustainable business based on green pants as your only differentiator, it can serve as a quirky, memorable part of your brand identity. “Which e-commerce platform did you choose?” “Oh, XYZ – you know, the folks with the green pants.”

The bottom line

Nowadays, every tech niche worth getting into is crowded with deep-pocket competitors. Be creative about what makes you different, and find that special something that will allow you to stand out from the crowd. 

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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