The first few years of my career as a business owner were riddled with self-doubt and feelings of inferiority. I was building businesses in the tech world at a time when it was all about the engineers, the developers and the designers. Business people were seen as support staff to the ‘real’ talent: the people building the tech.
For a long time, I questioned my ability and when I became CEO of my first venture-backed business, the chief technology officer and I clashed constantly because he felt that business was secondary to the product.
The deeper I immersed myself into the world of technology, products and business-building, the more I realized that at the heart of every business is the customer. What does the customer want? How does the customer feel? What problem does your product or service solve for the customer? These questions reveal the core trait of every incredible business: a story.
Business leaders are storytellers, and the best ones tell the best stories. Dave Duarte, founder of Treeshake, an impact-focused digital marketing agency, realized this after his business almost went under in 2017. He'd stopped all consulting work to focus on Treeshake, and he was sending out proposals like a man possessed – but none of them were landing. Sales slumped and, three months after focusing his attention on Treeshake, he started layoffs and had to pick up consulting again to survive.
Three years later, Treeshake was a growing side hustle and he'd refined his story sufficiently that his pitches were starting to win business. ‘The difference was that I'd nailed down the process. I was able to communicate much more coherently what we do and why it makes us different. I had worked for three years on distilling that into a concise way of talking,’ says Dave.
Crafting the best story for your business is important, but your brand needs to be well-positioned in the market to speak to the right customer at the perfect time. Ben Hirons, founder of marketing agency Due North, figured this out after a session with his coach. ‘One of the questions that everybody gets asked, but very few people answer, that I think I can answer well is: what's different about you?’ For Ben, this question shifted his entire business in the space of a 20-minute conversation. His coach helped him realize that his business' differentiator is its approach of combining engineering with traditional digital marketing.
The ground shifted under Ben and, the next day, he got to work repositioning his business in the minds of his customers. He started to tell a different story: ‘We're a bunch of marketing engineers, right? We build marketing systems, and now we've got a little catchphrase: marketing systems to survive the test of time. So, it's that long-term thinking – how can we engineer and build a scientific approach to marketing?’
It's a surprising problem that many business owners face: what makes you different, and why would your customers part with their money for your product or service? If you aren't able to effectively answer this question, then why would anyone spend their money with you over one of your competitors?
External insights aren't the only thing that can change the shape of a brand, as Howard Mann, the owner of a $150 million logistics company, learned in the fight for his business' survival. The story he told himself and his team for many years was that general logistics kept them afloat. When the market turned and he lost a couple of his biggest clients, Howard was forced to reconsider this narrative. He realized that shipping expensive art was the most profitable part of his business, so he repositioned to focus on this exclusively. Within a couple of years, he'd turned the business around, repositioned in the market and gained significant enough traction that he was able to exit the company.
The stories we tell ourselves and our customers really do matter. The words we use to position ourselves against our competitors can make a huge difference in the type of client we win or lose. It's very unlikely that the story you tell in the first few weeks of a business will be the same story you tell after five years.
If you're struggling to find traction in the market, grow profits or resonate with the ideal customer, then stop what you're doing and ask yourself: what makes you different?