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Value Proposition for Startups: 3 questions every startup must have the courage to answer

September 5th, 2014
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“Every time a person says ‘yes,’ they are saying ‘no’ 10,000 times. One ‘yes’ equals many ‘no’s.’ The power of ‘yes’ is not in its affirmation but in its negation.”

– Flint McGlaughlin

Leading a new business to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage is not easy. It often involves difficult choices and a certain level of courage. But for the startup, it isn’t solely the courage to say “yes” that enables it to thrive; rather it’s the courage to say “no.”

Recently, I had the privilege of spending some time with a young startup company and working with them on their value proposition. Like many startups, this group had done well without any formal process of identifying a value proposition.

They had a group of founders, who, like many, built a unique product to solve a problem for a particular group of people. Intuitively, they had launched with a successful value proposition.

 

When competitive advantage is challenged

However, times had changed for this group. They used to be the first in their space, but now their market was crowded, and their customers had many similar competing products to choose from.

During the course of our conversation, I could feel the pressure the leaders of this company were up against, which stemmed from the worry about maintaining their strategic competitive advantage.

The temptation was to attempt to be everything their (new) competitors had become — in some sense, to be all things to all people. This is a common pressure, but it is often this precise pressure that causes many organizations to “acquire” their way right out of a good value proposition.

The most forceful value propositions are not those that try to do many things well, but rather those that try to do one thing really well.

Focus is one of the most essential components of a strong value proposition. Unfortunately, focus is often one of the hardest things to find in a business. Focus requires courage, especially the courage to say “no.” Learning to say that two-letter word was precisely the kind of negating focus this startup needed to answer three essential questions:

 

Question #1. How will you not serve?

A business cannot be all things to all people without diluting the power of its value proposition. By its nature, a specific value proposition must appeal to a particular prospect type. This can be counterintuitive, but knowing who your customers are necessitates knowing who your customers are not. Recognizing this distinction is essential.

The startup I mentioned above had created the most respectable and trusted cloud-based email distribution service. Because of their intense focus on accepting only those clients who send reputable emails, they had the highest deliverability rates, a serious evaluation process and strict guidelines. But ultimately, they had to make the difficult choice to turn away potential customers in order to preserve the value proposition that served their true customers.

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