How to Stand Out When Your Competition is Bigger, Badder and Richer

by / ⠀Entrepreneurship Finding Customers Personal Branding Startup Advice / July 9, 2013

big-vs-small-02AWelcome to 2013. The absolute worst time in history for those looking to do something unique.

Long gone are the days when to “matter” we just had to create something “pretty good” and scream at the top our lungs about it.

Now there’s a sea of “us”. And they’re all doing exactly what we’re doing…or what we want to be doing.

It’s depressing. And it’s noisy.


  • What are you supposed to DO when you come up with a great idea, but your competition is bigger, badder and richer?
  • Is there even a point in pouring your heart and soul into an idea that’s already been done (in some way/shape/fashion) by someone else before?

Should you just curl up in a ball and die? Should you find another idea?

Don’t answer! Those are rhetorical.

Of course, rhetorical means that I’m going to answer you.

But first, let’s dig a little deeper.

The myth about creating something “new”…

Meet Nwams (pronounced “WAHMs”).

Nwams is a member of TAP and she’s the CEO/Co-founder of EasyWeave – a Houston-based startup that helps women (or men?) find the best prices on hair weaves and extensions by connecting them to hundreds of sellers and comparing prices.

Ever been on eBay and compared prices on two nearly identical products, then chose the one that had the best value?

EasyWeave is just like that – but for hair. Awesome, right?

But….as usual, there’s a problem.

The main idea behind EasyWeave is not a new concept….not by a long shot. And the competition is as stiff as possible.

Nwams has 4 main competitors: Alibaba, Etsy, Ebay and Amazon.

Every heard of those guys before? Yeah, they are global wrecking crews. All of them move millions and millions of dollars worth of hair weaves/extensions every year.

At a cursory glance, it pretty much seems like EasyWeave is dead in the water. Nwams’ competitors are bigger, stronger, wealthier and much more well known. They’ve got it on lock. It’s like that crazy basketball game in Space Jam where Michael Jordan had to go up against those freaky 12-foot bodybuilder aliens. With odds like that, most people just curl up and hope for death.

“Please, just make it quick and painless.”

How can Nwams still give her startup a chance at succeeding? Is there even a point in continuing when EasyWeave is a mosquito in a room full of vultures?

How can Nwams even have the audacity to think that she’ll make money when there are so many bigger players out there doing the exact same thing she’s doing?

Most startup founders run into this wall and get scared. We immediately try to think of a new product we can make that will be drastically different than what’s already on the market.

We don’t just want to reinvent the wheel. We want to reinvent the car, the streets and the stop signs.

We’re searching for something NEW to differentiate ourselves because we’re scared the competition will gobble us up if we don’t create something unique.

But that unique product isn’t a new product at all.

It’s your personality.

You: your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

Let’s face it – when we’re first starting out, the competition will be better armed, more visible and in many cases, they will have the ability to undercut us on price point.

In Nwams’ case specifically, the first thing I noticed is that her market (hair weave) is flooded. Most people get discouraged by a saturated market. I don’t. To me, it means she made a smart move. A flooded market means that her concept is solid. People want what she’s selling.

A flooded market gives you the opportunity to rise to the top because although there’s a ton of competition, 98% of them will be doing the WRONG thing. The majority of businesses can’t really sell what they make. That’s why they go out of business.

The second thing I noticed is that EasyWeave’s market is saturated with faceless online retail giants. You don’t have a connection to an Ebay or Alibaba when you buy from them. You are just purchasing what you need – and if you can find a reason to purchase somewhere else, you will. There’s really no loyalty involved.

So we need to give people a reason to buy from EasyWeave that outweighs the blind reflex to just look for the lowest price.

Nwams has a reason: herself.

Remember this: You don’t always have to be better, or cheaper, or faster, or more high tech than your competition.

Oftentimes, just being yourself is enough.

You can create a brand around yourself, with your personality and story as the USP (unique selling proposition).

Let’s zoom in here a little bit and think about the psychology behind why we buy.

Why we buy (vs why we THINK we buy)…

When you buy a new piece of clothing, a new convertible…or even a bottle of wine, what are you really buying?

Sure, you’re buying something physical – but behind that physical object is the feeling that you’re hoping to capture by possessing the new object. Even if the feeling only lasts for a second.

You’re not buying the shirt. You’re buying the way you feel, and the way others percieve you, in the shirt.

You’re not buying the convertible. You’re buying the warm summer breeze through your hair.

You’re not buying the wine. You’re buying the buzz and the off chance you might get freaky with that girl you met at the restaurant last night.

Everything we buy is in an attempt to capture a feeling – and we’re hoping that the feeling will stick. Because when it’s all said and done, all we’re left with is our stories.

Human beings connect with stories. And if you’re launching a startup that caters to human beings (umm…this is probably everyone), then you can leverage considerable influence over even the most vicious competitors by creating a more compelling story than them. A story that sparks feelings and emotions in the potential customer.

In EasyWeave’s case, this is really easy because all the faceless giants we named don’t even HAVE a compelling story. They’re just…there.

People will buy from you because they like your story and want to take part in your journey. They feel like they know you. Get this: they actually ENJOY buying from you and PREFER it over somebody that they don’t feel close to. Even if your prices are a little higher.

How to create a compelling story (hint: stop trying to “compete”)

The first step in creating a more compelling story than your competitors is to make the conscious decision NOT to compete in the same game everyone else is playing.

You have to actively seek out (or create) another ocean for yourself that no one else is swimming in. In order to stand out and really start differentiating yourself, try to answer these four simple questions. They are often overlooked, but if you can answer them, you’ll have no shortage of buyers who want your unique flavor

I blatantly stole these from my good friend Andrew Szeto. He’s brilliant.

The question are:

  1. Why you? (as in, you, the seller)
  2. Why me? (the prospect)
  3. Why this? (your product or service)
  4. Why now?

When you answer these question well, others can try to copy – but it will be obvious and lame.

Consider the perpetual Microsoft vs Apple rivalry. By continually making products that imitate and try to “one-up” Apple’s, Microsoft usually just looks cheap and backwards. Instead of trying to beat Apple at it’s own game, Microsoft should be creating its own ocean to swim in.

Do you see the irony here?

Rather than explaining WHY somebody should choose their products, Microsoft usually only tries to articulate why consumers SHOULDN’T buy Apple’s products. Therein lies the problem. That entire argument still keeps Apple at the center!

Microsoft isn’t showcasing their own personality or technology. They are merely commenting on the personality and technology of another company in hopes of making people dislike their competitor .

That message doesn’t resonate with consumers.

How does this apply to EasyWeave?

There’s only one Nwams. There’s only one EasyWeave. Right now, Easyweave is a slick, modern site that tries to hold its own against other (much bigger) ecommerce sites with deep pockets. That needs to change.

Rather than trying to compete with online retail giants, pretending to be another retail giant, the TAP program is helping Nwams to come front and center with the brand.

Instead of the current storyline, which reads something like:

“Welcome to EasyWeave. We make is easy to buy 100% virgin hair from trusted sellers.”

The new storyline becomes:

“Hey, I’m Nwamaka and I founded Easywave for one purpose, to find you the most beautiful hair at the best price. Let’s go shopping.”

See the difference? Better yet, feel the difference?

The first storyline highlights the features of the website, but doesn’t introduce any benefits or points of interest that couldn’t be found somewhere else. And if for some reason, another retailer is selling the same product for cheaper, there would be no reason to stick with EasyWeave.

The second storyline highlights Nwams and the purpose behind why EasyWeave exists. It focuses on a feeling (beautiful) and extends a personal greeting with a call to action.

These are subtle changes that make a world of difference. By injecting her personality into the core message, Nwams can make EasyWeave stand out easily when everyone else is just trying to fit in.

Bonus Case Study (video): How Trunk Club leverages their Unique Selling Proposition and makes me buy their stuff in the already-super-crowded menswear market

Once your potential customers have made a clear mental differentiation between you and your competitors because of your unique story, the real fun begins.

We talked about how EasyWeave could separate from the pack by not competing with the online megastores at their own game and embracing Nwams’ individuality as a branding identity. But the EasyWeave story is still being told.

How do we know this whole concept of injecting personality and specificity into your brand actually works?

Enter Trunk Club.

Besides being a very thinly veiled phallic/luggage double entendre, Trunk Club is essentially just a mens’ clothing boutique that carries various high-end department store brands.

What do that have going for them?

  • Their prices aren’t that great (they are actually pretty pricey).
  • They carry high-quality clothing, but their selection isn’t necessarily any better than you’d get at a nice mall.
  • Their website isn’t flashier or more functional than average.
  • They aren’t better marketed or more well publicized than other boutiques or carriers.

So why choose to compete in an ultra-competitive, ultra-saturated market like designer menswear? Why not try to sell something “niche” and “creative” like fleece socks or leather chaps or something?

And why the hell would I choose to buy from them when I have a dozen other options who are cheaper, closer, more well-known etc?

Personality and delivery.

Trunk Club has a very clear Unique Selling Proposition that has nothing to do with price, variety, popularity, credibility or “originality”. Here’s what their about page says:

Trunk Club was started to solve a simple problem – shopping for clothes in stores or online just doesn’t work for most guys. It’s overwhelming, inconvenient, and takes way too much time. With Trunk Club, guys discover awesome clothes that are perfect for them without ever having to go shopping. We combine top brands, expert service, and unparalleled convenience to deliver a highly personalized experience that helps guys look their best and saves them time.

Their process is ridiculously simple:

  • You sign up for a free account and send them a picture of yourself
  • A professional stylist calls you to talk about what you like and how you want to look/feel in your new wardrobe
  • They send you clothes that they think will look great based on what you talked about
  • You keep what you like and only pay for those items
  • All shipping (to and from) is free

My stylist’s name is Kim. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a professional stylist really pay attention to my needs and match up customized looks just for me.

Having her pick out clothes for me did a few things:

It saved me a ton of time that I’d rather be spending on more important things (like actually working on my businesses).

It established a huge contrast between the service I get at a Macy’s (or other department store) and the care and attention that I get from a personal stylist.

It established a personal relationship with a “real” person. When I order my next trunk, I’ll only speak to Kim. This time, I only picked one item from the trunk. Next time, she’ll get a better feel for what works for me and will be able to send me clothes that look and feel even better.

As strange as it sounds, since I know that an individual is taking her time to find things that she thinks I’ll like, I almost feel bad sending back the trunk without at least buying ONE piece. Kim is so nice and genuinely seems to care about what makes me look and feel good. We had a few laughs on the phone and I feel friendly towards her.

Now the sales situation is completely turned on its head. Rather than her trying to “sell” me, I feel a little obligated to buy something because I don’t want to dissapoint her by making her feel like I rejected her choices for me.

In the back of my mind, I begin to wonder if she gets some sort of performance-based commission on how much I buy from each trunk (she probably does) and all of the sudden, I want to “help” her in some way. I know it sounds crazy, but these are the thoughts that go through my head.

I write articles on these very concepts and still, I’m not immune.

All of the factors I listed make me more likely to spend more money on a piece of clothing than I normally would. I’m not going to buy everything in the trunk (it’s about $1,200 worth of stuff). But I will buy at least one piece.

In the process, Trunk Club has managed to do something that at first glace seems unlikely: convince me to purchase from a new source that I’m not familiar with, at a price that I typically wouldn’t.

They are a great example of how you can enter an already crowded marketplace and use your unique personality and “flavor” to attract new customers, even when you’re a small fish and competitors have a much larger reach.

By the way, if you’re wondering how Trunk Club is doing on the business end, their profits have skyrocketed over the past 4 years (est. 2009) and in turn, they’ve attracted some of the biggest venture capital firms in the country to invest in them.

So much for a saturated market.

Last, if you’re curious about what was in my trunk and how sexy I looked in the clothes, check this video out. I just threw it together quickly:

Tools and Takeaways: How to apply these concepts to YOUR startup

So you’re up against the big boys (or girls) with no money, no support and an “unoriginal” idea. Big deal. Here’s what you need to do to stand out:

First, answer these four questions:

  1. Why you? (as in, you, the seller)
  2. Why me? (the prospect)
  3. Why this? (your product or service)
  4. Why now?

Next, think about how you can take your product or service and put a unique spin on it to solve a common problem. Refer to the EasyWeave and Trunk Club examples to get some ideas. You don’t have to create a new problem, or even an entirely new solution. Sometimes it can just be a slight variation, combined with your own unique personality.

Finally, get personal with your prospective clients and customers. In a sea of monotonous retail giants and automated software, people are craving human interaction. If you can make someone feel loved and cared for, price becomes secondary. I know this, because I’m wearing an $80 t-shirt right now.

If you want to read more about positioning, creativity and building a unique brand, you should pick up:

Steal Like an Artist – by Austin Kleon

The Discipline of Market Leaders – by Michael Treacy & Fred Wiersema

(ps – those aren’t affiliate links. I could give two shits about getting a few pennies for you to click. I just think they’re great books. I’ve read them both in the past 12 months.)

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