How to not fit in

Set your business apart to win.

The hardest part about creating a marketing position that’s right for your ideal customers is that it’s necessarily wrong for your non-ideal customers.

By focusing on just our best work, just what we love doing, and just on the customers who value what we do above the other options, we will—by definition—not focus on everyone and everything else.

We won’t, for instance, appeal to customers who don’t appreciate our special skills and abilities. We won’t attract clients who don’t like our particular style or approach.

And we won’t be the right option for those who don’t truly value the types of services we provide.

That’s hard, because we often prioritize the feelings and opinions of people we don’t serve, and who don’t even like us, over our own goals and ambitions.

Like Plutarch said almost 2,000 years ago, “We tend to forget ... our friends, while at the same time we want to know the dreams of our enemies.”

And as you focus your business, people might make comments about how you should offer more services. Or they might say that, if only you lowered your prices or fundamentally changed your product, they’d be a perfect customer.

Or they might simply tell you that you’re leaving money on the table.

We can find out for ourselves what Keynes wrote, that it’s “better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” When we don’t conform to expectations in our business, we feel pressure.

And that pressure makes it easier to blend in and do what everyone else is doing, like providing too many services to too many types of customers. And it makes it more difficult to focus, to do what we do best, and to accept losing out on work that wasn’t good for us anyway.

But if we don’t stand out, we can’t succeed.

As Zook and Allen wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Differentiation is the essence of strategy, the prime source of competitive advantage. You earn money … by being different from your competitors in a manner that lets you serve your core customers better and more profitably.”

“The sharper your differentiation,” they continue, “the greater your advantage.”

Our business can’t be successful if it looks, works, and charges the same as every other business of its type. And we can’t be the best option for our best customers if we need to remain an option for everyone else.

The desire to play it safe and fit in is exactly what will keep us from safety.

But all of this means we’ve got to fight what high-performance sports psychologist Michael Gervais calls FOPO, or the “Fear of Other People’s Opinions”.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “FOPO is part of the human condition since we’re operating with an ancient brain. A craving for social approval made our ancestors cautious and savvy.”

But today, “The desire to fit in and the paralyzing fear of being disliked undermine our ability to pursue the lives we want to create.”

FOPO makes being focused and unique difficult. But it’s worth it, and it works.

As Clayton Christensen wrote, “Focus is scary, until you realize that it only means turning your back on markets you could never have anyway.”

It’s not about leaving money on the table, it’s about not wasting our energy grasping for every dollar in sight—and losing what we have in the effort.

“Attempting to appeal to everyone is a waste of time and money,” Josh Kaufman wrote in The Personal MBA. Instead, “focus on getting the attention of the right people at the right time.”

We might face pressure and feel embarrassed when we turn down ill-fitting work, publicly state our specialized marketing position, or choose to focus on a smaller set of products or services.

But the alternative is worse: Knowing that it was only the opinions of others that held us back.

“If you really care,” Michael Gervais once said, sometimes “you’ll look like a fool.”

But that’s okay.

“Because the thing you care about is much more important than how you look. There’s freedom in that.”

So, make doing your best work for your best customers more important than the opinions of people who were never going to buy from you anyway.

And stop trying to fit in.

Instead, make a plan to stand out.

There’s freedom in that.