Small businesses with fewer than 100 employees make up 99.9 percent of American businesses. There are currently 30.2 million American small businesses in operation, with new ones starting every day. As digital life steadily intensifies competition and consumers become both more empowered and more jaded toward marketing messages, it's critical that small businesses differentiate themselves to succeed.

"If you want to get consumer attention, you have to start with a bang," says Udit Goenka, CEO and co-founder of PitchGround, a company that helps startups take root with early adopters. In a saturated or unproven market, entrepreneurs stand to make an impact -- or nothing at all. Without an early and consistent identifier, small businesses are taking a big risk without the resources to back it up.

Small businesses, however, are absolutely capable of creating differentiators for themselves. It all boils down to strategy that doesn't cost a dime.

Outthinking the Competition to Outlast It

When your business is at risk of blending into the crowd, here are three approaches that can set it apart -- without diluting your limited resources.

1. Hit the ground running by attracting early adopters with a "lifetime deal."

Growth has to be fast and aggressive, particularly in a saturated market, so you have to hit the ground running. One strategy for early growth is to engineer a "deal of a lifetime" for early customers. This might be a lifetime subscription for a one-time fee, an ongoing discount for early adopters, or other perks to incentivize sign-ups in the beta stages.

"Attracting early adopters brings the influx of cash a young company needs to continue development. It's a bit like an IPO that way," explains Goenka. "But it also gives you a broad user base early on that provides valuable data about how users interact with your brand. This is also critical for development, and that's why an LTD [lifetime deal] is so important for early growth." 

2. Watch changing markets, and be the first in an emerging niche.

You're not going to out-Dropbox Dropbox. That brand got there first and has immense resources and name cache at its disposal. You can, however, find a niche that enables you to be the first in line to capitalize on a different need. Simply being the first to address a problem area can help consumers see you as the most empathetic or understanding, enabling you to make swifter progress in developing your offerings.

By targeting a specific emerging niche and staying super streamlined, you can sometimes develop a product in as little as 24 hours. But don't let the quick pace dissuade you: A single basic product can bring in anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue monthly. Find a niche you know, and solve an existing problem without getting too fancy. The bells and whistles can be added after you've gained a foothold in the market.

3. Bridge a gap to solve problems for two markets at once.

At first glance, Cobu (formerly Doorbell) is an app for apartment neighbors to create community togetherness. It addresses the sense of isolation that urban residents often feel, even when they're living in crowded buildings. But Cobu is also a product for landlords with high turnover rates who are looking to add value to their properties without undergoing expensive remodels. Active communities create value for a landlord's building and encourage tenants to stick around.

"Finding a way to make it sustainable by bringing value to both residents and apartment building owners was the true 'Eureka!' moment," explained Cobu CEO Ben Pleat. If you can bridge a gap between two markets in a way that solves problems both face, you've created a powerful differentiator and secured a broad audience base from the beginning.

Offering a lifetime deal to accelerate early growth, tapping an emerging niche and bridging gaps to solve problems for multiple markets simultaneously are just come of the creative acrobatics that entrepreneurs utilize to stand out. But finding another is an even deeper sign of differentiation. The growth model that worked for one company won't necessarily work for another, so get comfortable pushing the limits and experimenting with strategies.

Make sure your differentiators are clear before you launch so you can avoid costly mistakes. Entrepreneurs often don't have the time, money or runway to work their way out of the woodwork. Stand out from the competition early, and you just may find a way to grow at lightning speed.

Published on: Sep 22, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.