Around 10 years ago, I lived in Boulder, Colorado, a vibrant, if small, college town about 30 minutes from Denver. At the time, craft beer was booming. Brewmeisters were popping up all across the country, realizing that the days of Coors and Miller domination were over; it was time for independent beer-preneurs to thrive.
This was largely a good thing, and I took full advantage of the growing list of breweries popping up around me. At first, their roster of beers looked largely the same: five to seven standard styles made with locally-sourced ingredients. It wasn't long, however, until tap rooms started pouring some real oddities: orange stouts, cinnamon milkshake porters, IPA-barleywine hybrids. I even came across a coconut curry hefeweizen.
Suffice it to say, perfecting the core styles had taken a back seat to a rush of originality. Given the influx of new breweries, beermakers wanted to set themselves apart. As a result, the "basic" beers I loved to drink--the bocks and IPAs of the world--were suddenly harder to find.
In later years, I recognized this as a common pitfall in business. Original ideas--truly unique and groundbreaking--are seldom to be found. As U.K. comedian Stephen Fry once quipped, "An original idea. That can't be too hard. The library must be full of them."
Indeed, originality is not the key to business success. Business leaders too often make the misguided assumption that having something other businesses don't is the key to securing profits and establishing a well-revered brand.
The truth is, the products that you make (or services you offer) do not need to be groundbreaking. They need to meet a need, and they need to do it better than your competitors.
Put another way: The first question in innovating should not be: "What can I make that's unlike anything anyone has ever made?" but rather, "What do people need/want and how can I deliver that in the best way possible?"
Your differentiator is not turning a stout into a milkshake, but making your stout better than the guy next door. Business is, indeed, multifaceted, and your customers interact with you in multiple ways. They discover you online or through advertising; they talk to your sales staff; they browse your products in-store; they ask questions; they make a purchase; they try your products; they follow up with additional questions. In other words, numerous touch points give you a chance to set yourself apart from competitors.
Is setting up online chat for more accessible customer service exciting? Does producing a slick, easy-to-use website seem like a top priority? Maybe not--after all, you're focused on the product or products at the heart of your business.
Just the same, these are elements that can be differentiators. Focus on them as you fine-tune your products--without getting lost in bells and whistles. Customers will thank you.
I'll close with an example that I think is particularly telling. A few years ago, I was immersed in the world of business coaching. Everyone in the space had a mastermind--a monthly or quarterly small-group gathering of entrepreneurs wherein everyone talked through their business issues and mapped out a path to resolution.
At one point, I saw a surge of various "products" appear on coaches' websites that claimed to be wholly unique--live-streaming online courses, scripts for getting high-quality leads on social media, never-before-heard tips for cutting your workweek in half.
One coach, however, decided to stick to his masterminds and keep things simple. In our conversations, he shared how he engaged clients in new ways--addressing the impact of emotion on business decisions and encouraging mastermind participants to work more closely with each other to role play business scenarios.
As he told it, clients increasingly left his masterminds feeling empowered to make positive change in their lives and businesses.
You can probably guess what happened. Word of mouth almost doubled his business in six months--and he hadn't offered anything new to prospects. Just a mastermind--one that he honed and perfected to improve results for clients. In the end, that's all they really wanted.