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Differentiation: The beating heart of strong positioning
How to stand out, be relevant and authentic while staying true to your essence.
There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he’s sane. I know I’m mad. —Salvador Dali
After I started first impression, my inner critic became rather loud. “What do you have to say about positioning that others, experts like Andy Cunningham or April Dunford, haven’t already said?” I did not have a good answer. Or at least an answer that was convincing to my inner critic.
What I was looking for was my difference. As humans, we are hardwired to notice differences. Our eyes are drawn to what stands out. My work is to help startups stand out in a crowded space, and it was no small irony that I was trying to pin down my own differentiation.
Finding my essence
Essence: The intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character. —Oxford Dictionary
To arrive at my difference, I had to go back in time and notice when my essence revealed itself.
I grew up in a tiny flat in a large middle-class family in India. When I was five, an uncle who lived in Dubai came to visit us. This uncle gave me a big box of premium chocolates. None of us in that big household had ever tasted chocolates like that before, and I was allowed to have one a day. One day after school, I found my dear friend, Jyo, sobbing in the playground. She had bruised her knee badly, and more than the hurt, she was worried about upsetting her mother. I ran home and begged my grandmother to give me my daily chocolate allowance so that I could give it to Jyo. Not knowing which chocolate she would like, I took the box down to the playground for her to pick. Half an hour later, I came back home with a big, happy smile and an empty box of chocolates. I’d given it all away. Empathy and caring were intrinsic to my nature.
Fast forward twenty years. My first job was in customer support. I was extremely good at it, and unfortunately, when you are good at customer support, you end up with all the escalations, i.e. really, really angry customers. I had, unconsciously, found work where my essence could be applied.
Most customers were unhappy because the product did not live up to its marketing, and I was the one catching all the downstream pain and frustration. This made me move upstream to marketing. I felt most energized when I used my empath skills to understand customer motivations and aspirations firsthand and then translate those insights to guide product or marketing. And in doing this, I was beginning to hone my essence towards its authentic expression.
From essence to differentiation
Essence — I am naturally good at empathy. This is my core essence. Being an empath enables me to connect with someone and relate to their experience.
Relevance — When I blended my natural ability to empathize with people with a powerful curiosity to understand their motivations, fears, and aspirations, I began to observe, notice patterns, and make meaning from them. This was relevant to teams who could apply it to product or marketing.
Authenticity — I am an introvert. I’d venture to say that maybe it aids my observational skills. I’m happiest when my left and right brain meets to make something. Positioning is strategic, and branding is a creative expression of that strategy. I use my words and my imagination to give meaning to my observations. My work is, therefore, an authentic expression of who I am.
Differentiation — Finally, I am mapping the world people aspire to live or work in with the future that might exist if a product or an organization fulfills its purpose. I help founders sharpen their focus, navigate hard choices, and help shape a future that seemed like a fuzzy, insubstantial possibility. I can say with deep conviction that this is what I do best. I guide early-stage founders through the foggy mist of ideas and possibilities to make choices that connect with the end users’ aspirations. That is my difference.
As I was writing this newsletter, Salvador Dali popped into my mind (I don’t question inspiration when it makes an appearance!). Regardless of what you think of him or his art, it’s hard to ignore Dali. His work is different, distinctive, and hard to miss. The paintings below help me see Dali’s own essence sharpening as he moved towards his differentiation.
Landscape of Cadaqués (1920). Looking at it quickly, would you ever guess that it was a Dali? I did not. (source: Salvador-dali.org)
In this Natura Morta (1926) one senses Dali experimenting with his essence to find his own voice. (source: Salvador-dali.org)
In this Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion (1930), Dali embraces Surrealism in his own unique way. (source: Salvador-dali.org)
Galatea of the Spheres (1952) is one of the most renowned paintings from Dali’s Nuclear Mysticism period, post-atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This painting uniquely expresses his essence in a three-dimensional way. (source: Salvador-dali.org)
Like what you are reading and think it could help someone? Please share.
Let’s move from personal to art to practical application. I’m sharing the story of Archera, a startup in the Cloud Cost Management space, and how we worked together to arrive at their differentiation.
Understanding Archera’s essence
With the rise of machine learning, infrastructure and finance teams were struggling to make sense of rising cloud costs, often their second biggest expense after people. Organizations were locked into inflexible long-term commitments with their cloud providers. Archera’s founders had experienced first-hand the exponential shift to cloud computing during their time at Amazon and Apple and were deeply familiar with these problems.
When the team talked about their product, they framed it as “reducing complexity,” “taking the complexity out of the cloud invoice,” “increasing transparency,” and “saving time and money.” All of this, while valid, sounded undifferentiated. There were a ton of players in the cloud cost management space who do the same thing, or even if they don’t do it as well as Archera, they could say the same thing.
To balance out the team’s internal perspective with external experience, I spoke to their customers to understand their pain. A pattern began to emerge.
They all agreed that it was a painful problem. They could solve it by throwing engineers at it, but they could never solve it quite as well as Archera had solved it.
The problems didn’t become apparent until after they received their AWS or Azure bill. There was no easy way to detect spikes and anomalies in their cloud instances.
There was no easy way to plan or forecast cloud resources and protect themselves from overshooting their budgets.
Distilling Archera’s difference
Ok, so all this is a lot of information. How to distill this down to their differentiation? Let’s apply a simple but powerful framework to identify essence, relevance, and authenticity to arrive at their differentiation. You can apply this to your startup or even to yourself as an individual looking for your difference so you can do what you are best at.
Essence —A pattern emerged when I interviewed Archera’s customers. They had deep domain expertise and went out of their way to help customers save money. They often referred to themselves as stewards, guardians, or caretakers of cloud resources in an organization. This came naturally to them. This was their essence.
Relevance — Cloud spend was rising massively. Most solutions provided visibility into past events, but not many could protect against future cost increases. With the rise of FinOps and DevOps functions, the problems Archera was beginning to tackle became highly relevant.
Authenticity —This team understood the core struggle of their two stakeholders: finance and infrastructure teams. Infrastructure teams wanted reliability and scalability, while finance teams wanted predictability. They were imagining a world where managing and forecasting cloud resources was as easy as managing an investment portfolio. We invest in specific financial instruments: stocks, bonds, ETFs, etc. We can easily move money from one asset class to the next and rebalance our portfolio. Their product reflected this thinking, and it was an authentic (and original) expression of the problem they were trying to solve.
Differentiation — Over many discussions, the team’s thinking began to cohere. Customers should not only better predict their spend they should plan for it and de-risk it with leases or buybacks that can be traded in a secondary marketplace. This team was thinking beyond cloud cost management to a future where cloud resources flex dynamically to business needs and not the other way around. They wanted organizations to continuously and automatically de-risk, manage, and insure their cloud commitments. This was Archera’s differentiation.
After we completed the positioning work, it became obvious that their original name Reserved.ai did not fit them anymore. They had evolved past managing reservations. We went through a naming and re-branding exercise and arrived at what you see today as Archera. Thank you, Aran, Nikhil, and Aniqa, for letting me share your story!
The image disappears (1938) is one of the most famous multifaceted and multi-layered works of Salvador Dali. Dali combined on one canvas two of his idols, the most prominent representatives of art - Velazquez and Vermeer. (source: archive.thedali.org)
This Dali painting felt appropriate to wrap up this topic. It suggests more than one thing; it brings two or more elements together in a way that is intriguing, original, and unique. Good positioning can do something like this.
It is anchored deeply in the essence of its founders, in the unique way they perceive the world, and in their particular approach to solving difficult problems. When companies drift away from this essence, they begin to lose what makes them special. Andy Cunningham calls it “your core positioning DNA” in her book Get to A-ha!
DNA is the single biggest factor when it comes to identifying a company’s role and relevance in the market and determining its optimal positioning. Core DNA matters to humans and companies alike. —Get to Aha! Andy Cunningham
This essence, when manifested in a product or a piece of art, music, or writing, must be relevant to someone, a group of people, if you will. It must connect with a deep need, an aspiration, or a persistent pain.
People trust companies and brands that are authentic. People can see through fakery easily. Brands that align their product, marketing, and sales with their core essence and beliefs just do better. From Allbirds to Figma to Github. These brands are, first and foremost, authentic. And we trust them.
When we dial into these three components of the triad, we can begin to see what makes a particular startup, a person, a product, or a work of art unique and different.
What challenges have you experienced in trying to differentiate yourself, your product, or your startup? Please share your experience, insights, or questions below so the community can benefit from it.
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