Are You Really In The Business You Think You’re In?

I think it’s interesting how you can be in one business, but in order to kill it in that business, you need to attain mastery in some other, seemingly unrelated sphere.

My favorite example of this is Amazon. You might think that they are an e-commerce company. But what makes them so competitive is their unparalleled distribution system. They not only own warehouses in dozens of states, they have sophisticated programs to anticipate what products should be placed in what parts of the country. They are continuously aiming to close the gap between purchase and arrival, and that’s creating a nearly insurmountable obstacle for their competitors. Retail is their industry, but their mastery is in distribution and scale.

Another example you may have heard of is Zappos. They’re in e-commerce, too, but they went in a slightly different direction. They decided to completely master the art of customer service, to the point where it became legendary. The way to create the best customer experience, they decided, was to create the best employee experience. THAT was their differentiator.

Apple? Think about how utterly obsessed they were with design. That’s how they set themselves apart. Sure, they made cool gadgets. But more importantly, they were the prettiest, most intuitive gadgets around.

I call this the 5 Hows.

One of my favorite exercises for getting to the heart of any matter is to ask five whys. But when you’re looking at what you’re going to do to stand out in your industry, look at the hows. They’re going to show you how to compete.

The 5 Hows at Bonsai Scale

When you deliver a product or a service, you’re not just delivering that thing. I know a VA whose secret sauce is that she shows her employer that she cares as much for the business as the owner. (If you’ve ever had indifferent help, you know how much of a relief that is.) But a different VA sees it as her mission to make it so that her client never has to think about a task again. Assign it to her? *Poof* — it’s gone, and that mental space can go to something more important.

If you deliver a product, unlike Amazon, you can’t deliver speed, or send pizza like Zappos. But you can think about how you want people to experience their purchase, and then figure out how to deliver that. How, and how, and how, and how, and how. You will wind up with incredibly granular ideas that will add up to a truly remarkable experience. What Amazon does with speed and Zappos does with employee perks, you will devise your own secret sauce. You might not have the budget of Jeff Bezos, but you’ll be able to do something.

Why Is This So Important?

There are a few different ways to think about the advantage conferred by this mastery of an unrelated field.

In the first place, it is remarkable. In the Seth Godin sense, people are bound to talk about it.

[Tweet “Think about how you want people to experience their purchase, and figure out how to deliver that”]

In the second place, it is a competitive advantage that is extremely hard to combat. Anyone can compete on price, but it’s hard to beat this one-two punch of philosophy and tangibly different experience.

And thirdly, when you’re remarkable, when people resonate with your philosophy, and especially when you provide a tangibly different experience, people are willing to pay more. So it’s good for your margins, too.

Plus, the follow-on effect of getting to work with people who not only match you on a philosophical level, but are gushingly enthusiastic about your brand.

But it’s hard.

There are comparatively few remarkable businesses out there.

I believe it’s because we all want to take a direct route to success, and in doing so, we pull our focus away from that seemingly unrelated mastery that could really set us apart. There’s a kind of zen focus-not-focus that we need to adopt, and quite frankly, we care too much to show how much we care.

So just a little food for thought: think about your 5 hows. Think about some remarkable businesses that you enjoy and consider what their ‘unrelated mastery’ is, and how it effects your experience with them. Consider whether you can learn something from their example.