Playing to your strengths: how to compete with the big brands
David vs Goliath. The Rebel Alliance vs the Empire. Rocky Balboa vs Apollo Creed. Linux vs Microsoft. Whether it’s in religion, cinema, or even business we always love the story of an underdog beating the odds.
When you’re a freelancer though, that’s not just a story — it’s your own business on the line, and to survive, it will have to compete and compete successfully, against all the big brands out there.
Obviously, you start from a disadvantaged point: those big companies have more brand recognition than you, can outspend you on ads and marketing, can undercut you to gain more market share, and — thanks to VCs– they can even afford to lose money for years on end before turning on their first profit (Amazon is a great example on this last point).
In this post, we’ll show you 5 ways to turn your supposed disadvantages (smaller scale, less budget, less well-known) into advantages and have them work in your favor.
So, without further ado… This is how to beat the competition as a small business.
1) Be more personal
The first fact you should take into consideration when building your competitive strategy is that people are social animals. They need to have a personal connection with those that they do business with. The problem (for big brands) is that this gets all the more difficult the larger your company grows.
For you, on the other hand, this can be a strategic advantage. Whereas a new customer account is just another one of thousands to a big company, for your smaller/personal business they have a name and a face — and they even get to talk to you, the “CEO” of your one-person business directly.
By cultivating this personal connection, understanding your clients’ needs, and occasionally enlightening and indulging them with your work, you can build ties that are far stronger and last longer than what they will ever have with some big name brand.
This not only ensures that you’ll get repeat business from them, but that they’ll also recommend you to their friends.
2) Be more flexible
There’s a scene in “Five Easy Pieces” (a 70’s movie hit), where Jack Nicholson tries to order something off the menu in some large restaurant chain, only to be frustrated by the waitress stone-walling him.
Big brands are like those personal chains — fixed and inflexible. They offer limited options, and they push their “one-size-fits-all” solutions to the largest number of customers possible.
Without a huge inventory or a rigid corporate policy, you can be the flexible alternative. Do your research on direct and even indirect competitors, find the gaps in the products and services they offer and cover those needs. Give your customers what they want, and make customizations to your offerings when they ask for them.
This way you are again giving them something that they won’t be able to get from a large company. And even if they prefer the larger brand for its cheaper and more generic stuff, they know they’ll have to come to you when they need something more unique and tailored to their needs.
3) Find your niche
A big brand necessarily needs to cater to the larger possible market. They do so to take advantage of what’s called “economies of scale”, since mass producing fewer product models gives them higher profit margins (they can order parts in bulk, fewer assembly lines are required, etc.).
This is not just true for manufacturing, but for all kinds of business. A big educational organization, for example, will usually only offer the most popular courses — since those are the ones that can fill a large lecture hall and justify the costs of famous professors and expensive lab equipment.
Being small, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to cater to a particular niche. This is not because “economies of scale” don’t apply to you, but because what’s a tiny number of customers for a big brand can be a huge opportunity for you.
Besides, it’s easier to get customers interests in a very specific product or service niche, since you don’t have to compete with many other businesses for them.
Our advice, thus, is to specialize and try to find a lucrative niche in your area of business. Sharpen your competitive intelligence by discovering more details about the competitors for a particular niche. Build your strategy to compete, based on the most specific needs of that niche that remain semi-satisfied or not satisfied at all.
If you’re a piano teacher, for example, it might be worth it to offer rock or jazz lessons, when all schools in your town only offer classical piano training. Similarly, if you run a software business, you could train in some less popular but well-paying programming language or skill (COBOL, for example, which very few programmers know, is very popular in the commercial and financial sectors).
In this post, we examined some ways that being a small fish in a pond full of big fish can be used to your advantage. There are others too — and we might get back to the same subject in a later post.
Until then, dream big and play hard!