Have you ever wondered about starting your own business? Odds are, if you’re reading this, the thought has crossed your mind. Or maybe you already have a business or two under your belt and you’re considering a new opportunity. Either way, you’re probably asking yourself whether taking the plunge is a good idea.
The standard advice about launching a company often revolves around your personal qualities as an entrepreneur. Are you sufficiently visionary, committed or savvy? Or perhaps you’ve heard that market conditions are the key. And those things certainly do help you to succeed. The problem is, there are 100 factors which may or may not influence your odds of success and no one has all of them in their favor, so how do you decide?
It may surprise you to learn that there’s one business success factor that stands out above all others. And it’s this: Do you have an unfair advantage?
It's a phrase that's become increasingly popular in business circles. It's also the name of a book: The Unfair Advantage Small Business Advertising Manual, by Claude Whitacre.
Remember, an unfair advantage is not your drive, your product features or your customer service. You should assume that your competition is also driven, with a good product and great customer service. After all, if they didn’t have these basics, they wouldn’t still be around to compete with you.
Instead, ask yourself:
• Am I uniquely qualified in a way that customers value?
• Do I understand my customers better than anyone else?
• Do I have a business development or marketing advantage?
• Can I price my offering in a way no one else can?
• Do I have special operational capabilities for delivering my product or service?
Your answers to these questions will come from your life story and the life stories of your business partners. Unfair advantages can come from your family, old friends, where you grew up or who you married. They can also come from your experiences in school, church, internships, jobs and volunteer work.
• Theresa Payton’s unfair advantage in starting her Charlotte-based cybersecurity company Fortalice came from her status as former CIO of the White House.
• Daymond John’s unfair advantage in starting his FUBU clothing line came from his neighborhood friend, rapper LL Cool J, who was famously photographed wearing a logo hat.
• Katie Harding’s unfair advantage in launching her blogging and social media practice came from founding the South Charlotte Playgroup, which boasts more than 1,000 mom members.
• Ted Turner’s unfair advantage in building his media empire came from the billboard advertising business he inherited from his father.
If you talk to successful business owners about how they got their start, you’ll hear a lot about their grit, their hard work and their determination. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll often find all that grit, work and determination was piled on top of an initial seed – an impressive contact list, a family business, a fortuitous business partner, specialized training or insight from a former employer, access to low-cost Web development, warehousing or distribution – the list goes on.
And this is the not-so-little secret that doesn’t get talked about enough. Business is not a level playing field. Everyone loves an underdog story, but they are the exception, not the rule. You may have a “passion” for a particular business, but do you have a leg up?
I believe everyone has an unfair advantage at something, some unique combination of your identity, experiences, relationships, education and physical resources. The question for each individual entrepreneur is whether all of those elements add up to a viable business, and if so, which one?
Finally, there are different definitions of what does and does not constitute an unfair advantage, but I think the opinion that really matters is your customer’s. If your clients care about something you have that the competition can’t reproduce, then congratulations! You have an unfair advantage, which is one of the best reasons to start your own business.
Jennie Wong, Ph.D. is a Charlotte-based executive coach and the founder of www.CartCentric.com, a friendsourcing tool for online shopping.
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