‘You don’t want to be the best of the best. You want to be the only one who does what you do.’ – Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead.
Some of my best friends are British :) …. And they violently disagree with what I’m about to reveal to you as truth with a capital T. And that’s because in British culture we’re not supposed to show our ego. That’s why we have the Queen’s award. You don’t toot your own horn; you wait until someone toots it for you, and gives you an OBE, CME, MBE etc. It’s Tall Poppy Syndrome – which does exist elsewhere, but it’s a unique British form which says, ‘Who do you think you are – that you have something special to offer the world, or that you are someone special?’
In this context, believing in yourself can be positively subversive. Thinking for yourself as well instead of just passing on the received wisdom that we should at all times be totally self-effacing and say, ‘it’s not me, it wasn’t that good, and who am I?’
But what if you are really good? What if you have something special? What if your soul tells you that you must create or have created something or you are obsessed to bring something to life, or you just know that you have a unique contribution to give?
Can this be positive, or is it just part of a celebrity-doused, reality-show orgy of a lack of culture which exists across the world today?
Entrepreneurs have big egos – to state the obvious. They are driven more by impact and wanting to impose their vision of the world on the world, than necessarily making billions, having fame or exerting power. It is one of the most pleasurable experiences in the world – in the privacy of your own chateau :) - at three o’clock in the morning - :) - to know that you were right and that you shaped the world – influencing its course as an extension of your own personal worldview. As a star to shoot for, it’s worth it, and no one gets hurt.
So, wallflowers need not apply to the game of entrepreneurship, but you don’t need to be an annoying, extroverted self-promoter who every one wants to shut up either. This is not about a sense of entitlement. This about expecting success, and believing – against all odds, that you have and are something and someone that has a gift and an obsession.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of our way, why is this important?
Last time I checked, business was about making money. Making money is about profits and cashflow. Yes it is also about providing a great product and service, building a great team and culture – sincerely and difficult as those things are to get right, etc. But the simple fact of the matter is that if you are not profitable and making lots of cash, you’re going out of business – slowly or fast, long or short game. Let’s just be honest.
To make money you have to have a strong sense of what your personal strengths are and what you do as a business that only you can do. If you strip out your ego from that exercise, you’ll have a conversation which goes more or less like, ‘Well sometimes I /we sort do a good job at X, Y or Z, but then it’s really not me/ or us, and we have a lot of great competitors in the market, and we just really got lucky when we did P, D and Q….’
Lazards Freres created the franchise that it did not by being nice, but by doing something that the world perceived it was the only one that could do it that way. Google and Apple – in search and consumer services respectively – have the profits and cashflow that they have because the world perceives that they are the only ones who can do what they do. For many women, myself included, Chanel stands apart. You would no more buy an imitation Chanel suit than try to imitate another woman; it is the only one that does what Chanel does.
Get the point? It’s not about being the best of haute couture or investing banking or search or consumer services. It’s about being the only one who does what you do.
So create your own category. Sing your own song. Dream your own dream. Follow your own heart. Be your own diva.
The European Commission is so obsessed about creating competition by trying to cut off Google at its own knees that it obfuscates the larger issue that we have no such dominant platform companies within Europe that it can obsess over. It’s concerned about monopolistic power, but then that is a feature of the capitalistic system. If you’re really good, and doing something that you do as a firm that only you can do, you do become a monopoly by definition. By it doesn’t last, as monopolies get disrupted eventually by market forces, hubris, shifting norms and consumer preferences. I grew up as a professional in a world where Microsoft was a monopoly; no one reasonable would call it that today.
Larger, non-tech traditional firms which are not sure how to engage with this digital, exponentially expanding marketplace tend to look at their competition rather than to think deeply about their customers. I am a bank, insurance company, airline, oil firm, retailer, what is my unique selling proposition as a firm? What is it that we are the only ones in the market who can do or deliver? If you don’t know, ask your customers as they’ll probably respond with a simple answer not a litany of products.
In 1997 in the amphitheatres of INSEAD in Fontainebleau, I was so privileged to have Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne as my Strategy Professors in Period 3. I had been reading their articles in the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review in months prior to sitting in on their lectures. I have to admit that I was in awe of their original, fundamental thinking. They were absolutely subversive people. My classmates weren’t ready for them. Chan grew up in an illiterate background in Korea, and used to put his leg around his body in a strange way as I recall. Renee was one of those strong American women that triggers fear in a certain type of person. They did not give one hoot about what people thought of them – least of all INSEAD MBA’s. They were creating their own category, singing their own song, thinking deeply about what they observed, dreaming their own dream, and having conversations with Mike Bloomberg, the Chairman of Samsung, and a host of other giants of industry who sought their advice.
As a result of being the only ones who do what they do, they created ‘blue ocean strategy’ which most educated business people today know about. Don’t compete in a red ocean. Go into an uncontested market space: a blue ocean. Simple, and simply disarming. Devastingly effective.
Marginal improvement is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about winning, excellence, grandiose visions executed flawlessly in the market. This is not about competing or litigating Google or anyone out of existence. This is about figuring out how to be the only one who does what you do.
Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo are remembered not because they did great work and were better than their competitors. They are known today because they believed in their own souls that they had none.
Compete if you want to wear yourself out. The treadmill gives a shape to life, and for some, that’s really reassuring.
However, if you feel you have a unique contribution to make to the world: Find that blue ocean, build your own chateau, articulate what game you’re playing, as you can only ever win if you write the rules, design the blueprint and have blue waves washing over you as you swim.