Many entrepreneurs are stymied by the question: how am I actually different from the competition? We know it’s essential to identify a “unique selling proposition,” but in a competitive marketplace where it seems everything’s been done, it can sometimes be hard to articulate your specific value.
That’s why one of the people I profile in my new book Stand Out is television chef Rachael Ray -- precisely because, on the surface, she didn’t stand out at all. But as her example shows, one important strategy entrepreneurs can follow is reframing your expertise so that what’s banal in one setting becomes revelatory in another.
In her world -- the world of cooking -- it’s pretty clear what “expert” means: you run a high-end restaurant, or you’ve been trained at elite cooking schools. Rachael Ray did neither. As Boris Groysberg and Kerry Herman revealed in a fascinating Harvard Business Review case study, she started out as the food buyer for a gourmet market in Albany, N.Y. and began doing “30-minute meal” cooking demonstrations at the store. The store didn’t choose her for the role because of her prodigious talents; it was because no chef in the area would accept the store’s low rates.
She eventually got her big break when someone gave a copy of her cookbook (published by a one-woman press) to a Today Show producer. When a snowstorm prompted a wave of guest cancellations, the producer called up Ray – who, after driving nine hours in the snow, made her first appearance and was an immediate hit, leading to a lucrative contract with the Food Network.
Ray was derided because she lacked the credentials of illustrious peers like Emeril Lagasse or Mario Batali. She acknowledged the criticism, the HBR case study notes, and even warned the Food Network that “I’m not a chef, you’ve been duped.” But that was exactly why they wanted her.
The Food Network was chock full of elite chefs who made beautiful meals but the trouble was, their professionalism and perfection risked making them unrelatable to everyday people. But viewers intuitively felt that if Rachael Ray -- a spunky everywoman with no formal credentials -- could make a dish work, they could, too. If she were just another neighbor on your block, her ability to make tasty 30-minute meals would be nice, but not earth shattering. But in the context of the Food Network -- which had built a brand around celebrity chefs -- she was a revelation.
Today, Ray has created an entrepreneurial empire, replete with television shows, endorsement deals and product extensions -- and her example holds lessons for all entrepreneurs. Too often, we compare ourselves to the most “qualified” people in our field and are concerned about not having the most prestigious diplomas or formal qualifications. But as Ray shows, those often aren’t necessary, and you don’t need to compete head-to-head on credentials. If you can offer something distinctive in a given context, you can succeed.
Think about who needs your skills or approach but doesn’t typically have access to them. There are 400 million Spanish speakers worldwide, but there may be very few who serve people in your industry or your community and that could be your competitive advantage. And there may be plenty of people with good communication skills but surprisingly few who blend that with an understanding of engineering or technology. The talents that seem banal in one context can lead to breakthroughs in another.
Ask yourself what perceived weakness could become your strength, and if there’s an area where you don’t have credentials or expertise, which could become a selling point. You may not think you have anything unique to offer but as Rachael Ray discovered, changing the context changes everything.