Reimagining Startup and Enterprise Innovation

Claiming the Empty Playground in a Post-COVID World

Guest Author

This post was written by Michael Dermer of The Lonely Entrepreneur and cohost of the upcoming live session called "How to Drive Interest in a Hyper-Competitive Climate." 

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Many opportunities will emerge post-COVID. There will be new innovations in online learning, events, and social activities. There will be opportunities in the home office market like never before. Childcare services will undergo massive innovation to serve new work models.
The greatest risk (and the greatest opportunity) in a post-COVID world is finding the right playground. What do I mean by that? It’s about finding a space that isn’t too cluttered with competitors. You can find your own swing or a prime spot on the climbing wall. 

I know more about this crisis than most. If you don’t know my story, I saw the business I built for 10 years nearly get destroyed overnight by the 2008 financial crisis. The specific things we did during the crisis became the difference between success and failure. My story had a happy ending: we went on to sell the company that is considered a pioneer in the health rewards movement. And it led me to create The Lonely Entrepreneur, a non-profit with a mission to empower entrepreneurs.
There are many challenges that will be faced by companies in a post-pandemic world. But we believe the most significant ones – for entrepreneurs especially – will be competition. Prior to COVID-19, the world was hypercompetitive. Every buyer – whether it was a consumer or a business – believed that virtually everything could be bought for free. This is not completely true of course. But don’t we all believe that regardless of what we are buying, there is probably a free version out there. 
After COVID, this competition will intensify. With so many companies and individuals competing for scarcer dollars, it will be increasingly difficult for one provider of a product or service to stand out from the crowd. And here is the reality – anyone that is trying to compete on price will lose. If the tendency to find and use the ‘free version’ was prevalent before COVID, it will be even more so going forward. So how do you compete with free? 

You don’t. 

As Matthew Broderick said in the movie War Games, “the only way to win is not to play the game.”  We have all heard the cliché “sell on value, not on price.”  While true, in a post-COVID world, the stakes will be even higher.
So, what are the things that companies must do in a post-COVID world?

Find a Playground Where No One Else is Playing

We believe that traditional unique selling propositions will fall on deaf ears. Every company will have to find their own niche  – a market, a positioning approach, or a segment where they are the only game in town. 
Take my old business – rewards for healthy behavior. At the time we started our company, there were tons of points and loyalty programs. All we did was find a playground – rewards for healthcare – where no one else was playing. And once we did, we defined the rules for how the product should be bought, priced, and delivered. All others, including the major loyalty companies running the credit card, bank, hotel, and airline loyalty programs, were now competing on our set of rules if they wanted to break into the space.

Define the Criteria Where You Win

No one pays attention to the details. We live in such a cluttered world that there could be a million dollars in your inbox and there is a 99% chance you would never see it. If a company tries to line up its products and services against another, there is a good chance the buyer won’t even take the time to see the differences.
You have to define a criteria where you win – even (and maybe especially) if it is a criteria that no one was paying attention to.
Take Budweiser. For the 2018 Super Bowl, they ran an ad about “corn syrup.” A Medieval times soldier drove a chariot up to the Budweiser castle and proclaimed, “We have delivered your corn syrup.” The sentry from the castle retorted, “you must be mistaken, we don’t use corn syrup. You must be looking for the Miller Lite or Coors Lite castles down the road.”
Did you even know that beer had corn syrup? I didn’t. Even if you did, did you ever buy or not buy beer because it had corn syrup? I didn’t. Budweiser picked a criteria – corn syrup – that no one even cared about and made it the criteria for winning.  And in a hypercompetitive industry like beer, it made all the difference.
Entrepreneurs will have to pick (or create) a criteria they can win at.

Know-How and The Risk of Not Having It

Entrepreneurs are competing against a price of $0. In a post-COVID world, companies will have far fewer sales and marketing dollars to position products or services. Every vendor says it provides great service and great prices, has loyal customers, and lots of references, but businesses and consumers have largely tuned out. 
What they won’t tune out is the risk of not knowing something they should know.
I once did a consulting session for about 30 international travel public relations professionals. As you may know, public relations is an incredibly competitive field. Every PR firm says they have great clients, lots of relationships, and great insights. The challenge is to win against the clutter. 
I asked them if they knew that no Americans are allowed to stay overnight on the seventh floor of the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world in Dubai. They mumbled amongst themselves and then started asking questions of each other and of me. After the chatter settled, I asked “do you know why no Americans can stay on the seventh floor?” I paused and said, “I just made that up. It isn’t true.” 
But for a few minutes, everyone in the room thought I knew something they didn’t and that they would lose business if they didn’t know. 
Obviously, you don’t want to make stuff up, but you do need to bring clients the knowledge they don’t have. If you do, they will walk away from a meeting thinking, “I better hire them.”

Excelling in Tough Times

Post-COVID, we will see changes to market dynamics like we have never seen before. But in the end, if a business does not carve its unique place in the world -- and do so in the time it takes to put on a mask -- the world will pass it by. 
This is the greatest risk, and the greatest opportunity, of a post-COVID world.

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Michael Dermer is an author, entrepreneur authority, and the founder and CEO of The Lonely Entrepreneur.  Michael is a consultant and speaker who has keynoted over 100 events serving entrepreneurs in the United States, Mexico, China, India, the UAE, Croatia, Singapore, Spain, and Israel.

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