I used to think that to have a successful business you needed an original idea. Today, having interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs as a journalist, I’ve realised that a completely new idea is actually relatively rare.
Most successful businesses build on ideas that have come before, yet also have a clear unique selling proposition (USP). They innovate and set themselves apart by finding new ways of approaching existing ideas or putting a new spin on things, whether finding a new route to market, combining ideas from different industries to create something new, taking an existing product to a new audience, creating new business models or delivering an exceptional service.
In this post, we’re going to look more closely at some areas where you can set yourself apart as a creative freelancer or entrepreneur, which I hope will help get you thinking about a compelling USP for your own business.
What’s a USP?
Your USP is what sets you apart from any other business. It’s the reason(s) why someone would buy from you over anyone else, and what you want your business to be known for.
Let’s be honest, there are thousands of talented writers, illustrators, photographers, designer-makers, videographers and other creative entrepreneurs out there. And while having a quality product or service is fundamental, and can sell itself to an extent, this isn’t always enough to build a sustainable business.
Why would someone come to you specifically? What makes you stand out from the crowd? Working out your USP comes down to understanding who would want to buy your product or service, what their priorities are, and how you can differentiate yourself from what’s already out there. This article on Fizzle sums it up perfectly:
“When you’re small, it’s hard to compete on product or content quality alone. You need to change the conversation. Instead of screaming “hey, look at me, I have great stuff too,” you want to confidently say, “hey, I’m all about X, we do things differently. If you’re into X, we’re the only place you can get it.”
The trouble with competing on price
As a freelancer or entrepreneur, trying to make a living simply by offering the cheapest price around is not usually a viable option. Not only is it unlikely to be the route to sustainability, but if price is your only differentiator all it takes is for someone to come along and undercut you (say, a bigger company with economies of scale) and there’s no longer any reason to buy from you.
A better approach is to demonstrate value. There are actually lots of compelling areas where small businesses and skilled artisans can gain an advantage – whether by offering a more personal level of service, becoming the go-to person for a niche service or audience, or offering a level of customisation that mass-production could never match. You also have the ability to be nimble, seize opportunities and react to changes in the market far more quickly than others can.
It’s up to you to come up with a compelling reason why someone would want to buy what you’re selling (rather than a similar product/service), from you specifically, at the price you need to make your business work. That means understanding what people are really looking for in a product or service like yours, and what their biggest priorities are.
Here are some ideas on how to set your creative business apart and define your USP:
Soothe or eliminate pain points
Giff Gaff, the mobile network that doesn’t tie you into a contract, is a great example of a company using a common pain point (being stuck in a two-year mobile contract) as its main differentiator.
For creative businesses and freelancers, this means doing some research and finding out what your ideal clients’ biggest frustrations are when buying a product or service like yours, and seeing if you can craft a proposition that solves this. Depending on your business that could mean making it easy to speak to a real person on the phone, being meticulous with hitting deadlines, being transparent with your pricing, or something else entirely. Speak to your customers or ideal audience and find out what matters to them.
Create an experience
In 2007, I moved back to my home town of London from Brighton, where I’d lived for six years during and after university. But for years afterwards I still travelled down to the coast to get my hair done. It’s a three-hour round trip and cost an extra £25 in train fares, but I did it happily. Why? Because my hairdresser knew exactly how I like my hair done. We’d chat away like old friends, the salon had a great atmosphere and I could relax with a latte or glass of wine.
There are plenty of hairdressers in London, but I made the effort to go to this particular one for the experience and end result. How can you make your product or service a more enjoyable and memorable experience for your customers or clients?
Go the extra mile
How can you go above and beyond expectations in a way that offers loads of value to your clients and is sustainable to you?
For example, as a freelance writer for a magazine, I’d always endeavour to submit my features in what I considered to be a publishable state, with a suggested headline, standfirst, sub-headings, and having proof-read it myself thoroughly. Depending on the content, I might even include an optional box-out to give them more flexibility with the page layout.
I knew from working in-house myself how much time pressure is involved in producing a magazine, that some writers don’t even proof-read their work before submitting (or so it seems!) and that taking a little extra time to do these things could make their lives much easier, while almost guaranteeing me more work in the future.
Bring an existing idea to a new audience
Like this Justine Musk quote I shared on Instagram recently explains (and here’s the Quora post it’s from in full), bringing two different worlds together can be a great way to spark innovative ideas, set yourself apart or become the go-to person for a particular group of people – whether content marketing for financial services or web design for farmers.
Just make sure there’s a big enough market and need to create a sustainable business!
Develop clear brand values
If given the choice, it stands to reason that people will prefer to work with a company whose values are aligned with their own.
Whether you have a specific policy – for example, donating 10% of your profits to a cause you believe in – or you live and breathe a value like transparency by being open and honest through your blog and with your own team, standing for something can help to set you apart from the crowd. Having a clear set of values and principles can also be your guiding light when you’re faced with new opportunities or decisions about how to take your business forward.
Of course, nothing erodes trust faster than someone who professes to stand for something but whose actions suggest otherwise, so really take the time to make sure any values you share are things you truly believe in and make business sense.
Let your personality shine through
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. As a creative freelancer or entrepreneur one of your biggest USPs is you. No-one else in this world has your unique combination of skills, experience, interests and personality, and owning this by letting your personality shine through in your website, marketing and the various ‘touch points’ of your brand (where customers come into contact with your business) can help you attract the people who are really going to relate to your story and approach and get the most out of working with you specifically.
Consider your product or service features
Another USP that caught my eye recently is Clipper’s unbleached teabags, which promise to be more natural than other brands’ bags (which are often chemically bleached, apparently) and taps into a growing wave of concern about chemicals in our food and beauty products.
Again, it’s not about being arbitrary or adding features for the sake of it, it involves thinking about who your customers are and what type of features would most appeal to them. Sometimes the most successful and effective products are the simplest.
Explore new business models
I’ve written before about how business model innovation can be just as powerful as product innovation. Just look at Birchbox. The company launched as a ‘beauty in a box’ make-up subscription service. Subscribers pay around £10 a month and receive a curated selection of make-up and beauty products to their door on a monthly basis. It’s since become a fully-fledged e-commerce site and has raised more than $70m in venture capital.
Buying make-up and beauty products is nothing new, but the company found a new way of packaging and delivering them to an audience that’s keen to discover new products without spending a small fortune on the full-priced versions.
The lesson here: don’t be restricted by the way of delivering products or services that’s always gone before.
Examine your process
Likewise, can you use your process to set yourself apart and offer a compelling proposition to your customers? For example, in this brilliant post by the Design Trust, Patricia explains how an artist making one-off, hand-crafted dining tables might want to get their customers involved at an early stage, giving them input and making them feel part of the story of an item that’s likely to be a cherished part of family gatherings for years to come. This also helps to justify a price that will compensate the time and hard work that will go into its creation.
This artisan would struggle to compete on price with the likes of West Elm or Habitat and build a sustainable business, but this experience and level of customisation is something unique, special, and which the big stores would be hard-pushed to match.
Create awesome content
Social media scheduling tool Buffer is probably the poster child for the power of awesome content to set a company apart. It’s detailed, well-researched blog posts are some of the most shared content on the web and have helped the company secure more than two million users in its first five years. Meanwhile, Breanna of Rowan Made, Lauren and Jake of Elle & Company and Charissa of House of Bliss are all great examples of creative entrepreneurs whose content puts them in a league of their own.
Creating regular, quality content can be one of the most powerful ways to make your business stand out. It can demonstrate that you know your stuff, offer crazy amounts of value, build trust and credibility and introduce new customers to you and your business. It can also help you build relationships and create an audience of people who may be interested in buying your products and services in the future.
And when it comes to finding out common pain points, your customers’ needs and what’s missing from the market? You’ll have a ready-made group of people you can ask!
Finally, the most important thing to remember is that a compelling USP isn’t about doing something different for the sake of it, but rather seeing what’s missing, what you can do well and what your customers really want.
Once you know this, you can then start to think about how to position yourself on these terms. But when doing this, remember that sometimes it’s more powerful to show than tell. For example, if your clients’ biggest priority when working with a freelancer is reliability or discretion, simply saying that you’re reliable on your website might not carry much weight (and let’s be honest, might be a little weird), whereas a testimonial from a previous client could be a much more natural and effective way of showing this. You can also make it a priority to live and breathe these attributes so that clients want to book you again and again.
How have you set your creative business apart? What other ways can you think of to make your business stand out and appeal to your ideal audience? I’d love to hear your tips and thoughts in the comments below.