I’ve quoted this a few times before, so excuse me if you’ve heard it.
“You either have to be first, best, or different.”— Loretta Lynn
Being “first” at most anything is a remote proposition these days.
Being different often means something like what Slack did: take existing things and re-roll them into something that works better for end users.
And how can anyone be “best” when they compete with companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft?
If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re faced with choices like these. All three of these are about differentiation. Why should the customer choose your product or service over the competition?
If you’re the first, you have no competition. That might seem like a good thing, but it’s not. In the ten thousand or so years since humans stopped being hunter-gatherers, we’ve been working together – and competing against each other – to solve problems. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and we’ve been inventing things back into prehistoric times in an attempt to solve our problems.
Today there are roughly 8 billion people on our small planet; having a wholly original idea is about as likely as getting struck by lightning on your way to pick up your lottery winnings.
This isn’t to say that it can’t be done; new technologies solve problems but it also creates new ones. Take nuclear power, for example; it helped solve a power-production issue but created a new problem of how to deal with radioactive waste.
“First” isn’t impossible, but it’s hard.
I mentioned Slack already, and I’m going to stick with it because so many people know about it.
When I first introduced it at the City of Chattanooga, I ran into a ton of skepticism. “It’s another chat tool, why would we need that?” I’d used it myself, and I’d seen how it was different. Sure, it’s absolutely “another chat tool.” Still, it’s different because of the user interface (UI), the many integrations with other applications that it provides, and the blending of ideas that make a chat tool more usable.
There are many others out there; a couple of products that spring to my mind are Stripe and Docker. Other tools already available could do the same basic things (accept online payments and containerize applications) but weren’t terribly accessible. If it’s a pain in the ass to use, if it takes months to implement, or if you need a team of engineers to maintain it, it might not be a great option. “Different” today is often the remixing of existing ideas and technologies in a way that makes them easier to adopt and live with.
“Different” might not be as hard as “First,” but it’s very challenging in its own right. It means understanding that there is a problem and that there are existing ideas that solve it but in a manner that’s too complex. It means understanding why the existing solutions are too difficult, which means learning a lot about how people think and approach tasks. It means creating a UI that speaks to people, one that almost knows what they want before they know they want it.
“Different” is hard, too.
“Best” can mean many things, and it’s hard to prove.
I could claim to be the world’s best Linux server administrator and it would be legal for me to do so. A lot of non-Linux-experts would believe me if I presented myself well enough. Actual Linux experts would scoff at me in forums that only they (we!) read, but could do nothing to prove that what I said was untrue.
The company that I founded, Webinology, certainly isn’t the first of its kind. It’s different on a few levels, but mostly in under-the-hood sort of ways that might actually convince a few Linux nerds that I’m an expert but don’t make for good marketing copy.
From the beginning, we were always about being the best, but to understand that is to know why Webinology came to exist in the first place. There are thousands of places where you can sign up for cheap web hosting and it’s utter garbage. There are hundreds of places where you can sign up for premium web hosting but you’ll pay a lot. I knew that I could have all the features, all the bells ‘n’ whistles, and it would cost me a lot less if I just did it myself.
As a business model, this hasn’t proved to be epic. If you’re one of our customers you’re really happy with what you get for what you pay, and I’m proud of that. But we don’t have nearly enough customers and we watch potential customers walk away when we know we’re offering five-star service, five-nines of uptime, and performance that meets the Google standard for less than what a lot of us pay for streaming TV services per month.
Companies pay thousands of dollars – tens of thousands, or more – to have a website created only to let it live somewhere that is subpar because they don’t see the value. They can see that their new website pleases them aesthetically but they don’t see how many customers they lose because their site didn’t respond quickly enough. This has always been the way for us who provide underlying services: do you thank your electricity provider every day or do you take electricity for granted until it goes out?
“Best” is indeed hard to prove, especially when you don’t have something glitzy and glamorous to put forth as your product or service.
The Bottom Line
I’ve chosen to own “best.”
I don’t lay down to sleep at night with people who didn’t think we were worth a few hundred dollars per month; I lay down to sleep with myself (and a cat or three, depending on their moods).
When I look back on my life, I’m not going to care about pleasing anyone but myself and doing my best really matters to me. I’d rather give someone a little more than they bargained for than have them feel cheated. I want a company that will never outgrow knowing every customer as a person and treating them with respect and empathy.
My biggest challenge hasn’t been the technical aspects; it’s been in helping people understand that milliseconds matter on the web and that your site being down when a potential customer shows up means they’ll never be back. Content layout shift will cause mobile clients to cuss at their phones and jump to the next hit in their Google search. And gods forbid you get hacked and your client’s data is compromised; you’ll spend years rebuilding your reputation.
I’m more devoted today than ever before to keeping “best” as my business model. Will it make me rich? Very doubtful. Nor am I likely to have my own Wikipedia page or be heralded as a pioneer in our field.
However, every single client whose life is better because they met us… who never had catastrophic failures or lost thousands of customers due to crappy website performance… they’re my reason.
And my reward? Knowing in my heart that what we’ve made is better than most – if not all – of the competition is all this web nerd needs.
Find your passion, nail it, and learn how to sell it in terms people who don’t know what you know can understand. And then market the hell out of it… because even if you were first, best, and different, you’d still get nowhere without good marketing.