Last week I shared some thoughts on how to stand out in a crowded market, which I hope will help you come up with some useful ideas to differentiate your own creative business. If you haven’t got time to read the post in full, the most important points to take away are:
- Your unique selling proposition (USP) is what sets you apart from the crowd – the reason why someone would buy from you over anyone else.
- Having a quality product or service is fundamental – but this isn’t always enough to build a sustainable business. You need to give people a reason to buy from you specifically.
- There are lots of compelling areas where small businesses can set themselves apart, whether by offering a more personal level of service, becoming the go-to person for a niche service or audience, creating quality content or offering an unrivalled level of customisation.
- But don’t just do something different for the sake of it. The aim is to differentiate yourself by doing something that will attract and delight your ideal customers.
If you’re looking for a little more guidance on how to set your business apart, today I’m sharing five questions you can ask yourself to help you define a compelling USP. When it came to thinking about how to set this blog apart and a business model that would work for my strengths, experience and skills, the questions below are the ones I really focused on, and which provided the most useful answers:
What are you known for?
When it comes to finding a unique way of doing things, it’s always useful to start with your strengths.
While we’ll always have a sense of our own strengths and interests, sometimes it’s enlightening to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and consider how they view us, too. Is there something that people always tell you you’re great at? If nothing springs to mind, why not ask a few trusted friends or colleagues what they consider to be a particular strength or specialty of yours.
Even if you’re relatively young and starting your business straight out of school or university, there are bound to be indications of things you could use to set your business apart.
For example, maybe you’re great at maintaining your social relationships and would be awesome at crafting a business built on stellar customer service, exceptional client relations or running an online community. Or perhaps you’re an artist who is often told that a particular style or medium is your forte.
>>Think carefully and write down everything you feel yourself is a strength, as well as anything people often tell you you’re good at. Perhaps not everything will be relevant, useful or aligned with your interests, but you should start to get an idea of areas you could potentially focus on, or ways you could improve your existing proposition.
In an ideal world, how would you spend your days?
Sometimes you can be good at something but not really enjoy it, and sometimes you can love something and not be that great at it. Neither of these scenarios is an ideal starting point for building a successful business (although with time, practice or a co-founder sometimes these things can be overcome!).
I personally believe you can find purpose in many ways, and agree with the notion that following your passion isn’t always enough. But equally, I haven’t met a successful entrepreneur yet whose energy for their business wasn’t palpable.
If you want to be able to put in the hours of hard work it takes to get a business off the ground, and dig deep to find the resolve to keep you going through the tough times as well as the good, it helps monumentally if your idea or mission is something you’re passionate about.
Equally, when thinking about how to differentiate your business or specialise, think about the aspects of your work or craft that light you up the most, and what your ideal working day would look like. While it may not all be feasible right now, this exercise can often give valuable clues as to a direction that’s more in tune with your values and interests.
>> Write down all the things you genuinely value and enjoy, and give yourself permission to be completely honest. Then map out your ideal working day, both in terms of the practical things you’re doing and crucially, how this feels. Don’t allow yourself to be confined by preconceptions of what it is you *should* be doing. Write from the heart!
What do you have that no-one else in your space has?
Whether experience in a different sector, the fact that you’ve travelled, a background in drama, that time you were ill for three months and read the complete works of Shakespeare…every single one of us has a unique collection of experiences and skills that we can draw on to build a business that stands out from the crowd.
Even if you’re working a day job or not exactly where you want to be right now, there’s still a good chance you’re gaining valuable experience, insights and ideas that could help you in the future, if you’re open to receiving them.
For example, while I had no idea at the time, my first job out of university as a finance assistant turned out to be the perfect grounding for a career in business journalism – and later, starting this blog.
Even though I knew it probably wasn’t what I wanted to do forever, I was still committed and really eager to learn. In return, my boss taught me things like profit and loss reporting, cashflow forecasting and all kinds of things an assistant wouldn’t normally worry about, which really helped me to understand how small businesses work. It’s knowledge I still draw on today.
>>Write down all the things that make you unique and (probably!) no-one else has in your space. Think about your experience, interests, achievements, resources, or anything that makes you different from anyone else out there looking to do the same thing as you, or gives you a different perspective.
What’s missing from your industry?
In business, it’s great to be clear about your mission and keep that as your main focus. You don’t want to let yourself get too distracted by what others are doing, but in order to offer something different you have to be aware of what’s missing.
It also pays to keep an open mind and remember that once you’re clear on your core mission, there will be all sorts of ways of fulfilling it.
For example, let’s say you’re a freelance nutritionist. On a day-to-day basis you might work one-on-one with clients, but your overarching purpose and the thing that really gets you out of bed every morning might be something like helping people to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
There are actually countless ways you could achieve this mission – selling digital products such as e-books through your blog, producing workshops, video tutorials, a meal-plan subscription service, retreats…the list goes on, and includes any combination of the above.
>>This is where keeping an eye on the market can be really valuable. Is there a medium that isn’t really being used by others? Could you take your skills to a different type of product or service which your dream customers would love? Again, don’t be confined by preconceived notions of how your type of industry should work, and don’t be afraid to mix things up and try something new!
What are your dream clients’ biggest priorities when buying a product or service like yours?
When it comes to creating a compelling USP, this is probably the most important – and most overlooked – question.
You could be the only person in the whole world selling hand-crafted Buffy the Vampire Slayer coasters, but if only 10 people in the world want to buy them, it’s hardly the basis for a sustainable business (clearly that’s a bad example though because who wouldn’t want to buy those!? But you get my drift).
If you really want to stand out AND attract your target customers, you first need to establish that there’s a big enough market for your idea. Then you need to execute your idea in the right way. That means understanding what people’s biggest priorities are when buying a product or service like yours, and doing your best to give it to them.
This isn’t always what you think it is. For example, when I worked on a magazine, we had a number of photographers on our books who could all take a top-class photo. But there was one guy who had something else that really set him apart – the ability to build rapport with our interviewees.
He’d always research the business of the entrepreneur he was photographing beforehand. He could tell if someone was uncomfortable and would tailor his approach accordingly. His professionalism gave people confidence and his strong people skills meant people were more relaxed, therefore willing to try less conventional things, producing innovative and exceptional magazine covers.
>> Think about what really matters most to your clients or customers when buying a product or service like yours or working with someone like you – taking a quality product or service as a given. If you’re unsure, speak to past clients or members of your target audience and ask them for their input.
Putting everything together
The most important thing to stress is that a strong USP is not just about doing something different that you’re passionate about or good at. Ideally, it’s about combining elements/answers from all of the five questions above to find something you’re good at, passionate about, that’s unique to you (in your space), missing from the market and that your customers really care about. You might even be able to come up with several strong differentiators for your business.
>>For some examples of USPs, check out this post on how to set your creative business apart.
And finally, remember that differentiating your business is a process, and nothing you do has to be set in stone.
The world is moving so fast now that what you’re doing today may not be enough to keep your business growing five (or even two) years from now. The businesses with real staying power tend to be the ones that never let themselves get complacent. Instead, they make it their mission to keep on evaluating, learning and evolving.