I stood outside of the Hoboken train station in New Jersey when I looked at the Google maps on my phone and realized the train was leaving for Manhattan in 3 minutes. I ran down the stairs, bought a ticket for a PATH train ride (a special subway line that runs between Manhattan and New Jersey) and jumped on the train that was supposedly headed to World Trade Center. Every time I get on the train, especially the one I rarely use, I would triple check if it is going in the right direction. And usually I check by asking other passengers. This time I didn’t feel like talking to strangers, perhaps because I have just spent 3 hours networking with the room full of strangers. I sat on the train waiting for it to leave the station when I noticed a conductor. She announced that the next stop would be Newport (also in New Jersey) and started preparing for departure. I asked her if this train was going to World Trade Center and she confirmed. After a few seconds, she looked at me and said, “I always get this question when I make an announcement. Why? I have just told you where this train was going. Should I make it clear that the train is going to World Trade Center?”
I was a bit surprised because this woman was clearly irritated. I apologized and said I didn’t mean to upset her. She responded, “Oh no-no, you are fine, it is just that this happens every time. You asked the same question people ask me all the time. This must be me and the way I make an announcement.” I thought about it for a second and replied, “So, I am just a statistic.” “Yeah, that’s right,” – laughingly nodded the conductor.
I am just a statistic. I have been pondering over this phrase for a while now. It kind of sucks to realize you are no special than other people. It is even upsetting to hear that your experience is more or less the same as everyone else’s. Because we want to feel special, don’t we? Golden medals for showing up, trophies for competitions with no winners, awards for contests with no meaning. Fast forward 10 years, and we are getting excited about the number of likes under our Facebook updates, count views for our Youtube videos and check out our Instagram followers. The more views, likes, followers, shares and impressions we get from others the more special we look. The more special we look the more unique we think we are. And the more unique we think we are the better we feel. It all comes down to feeling special and how great it is.
It is and it isn’t. When I started Parceed, I thought being special is what would set me apart from the competition and help me stay ahead. A few months into running my own business I am realizing how wrong I was. Here are my lessons learned on why being special doesn’t help your business.
- If your stage of the company is the same as where many other startups are, this means that there is infrastructure out there for companies like yours. Sure, lots of other startups like yours are fighting for the place under the sun but at least there is sun out there. If you realize that your experience running the business is different from everyone else’s, there may be a reason why you are the only one figuring this out. Perhaps, your product is too novel for the market (e.g. artificial intelligence based products in the early 2000s)? Or maybe your product is great but your customers do not yet trust the ecosystem it is supported by (when they were asked to share their personal information and didn’t feel comfortable sharing it decades ago)?
- If you have the same struggles as other companies, this means that there are good solutions out there for you. One of the best examples of this are startup accelerators. Thousands of serial entrepreneurs have been solving the same problems you are facing today, but those entrepreneurs are not running your business. And it’s not like this “entrepreneurial experience” is hereditary or is transmitted by air. You have to learn it yourself. Startup accelerators have been created to help brand new entrepreneurs save themselves years of struggle solving what has been solved before. They can now take advantage of resources that will help them avoid mistakes of the previous generations. Isn’t this handy? If every company was special, accelerators wouldn’t exist.
- Your product and market are not new. This is much better news than you think. This means your customers are already familiar with the product and you don’t have to spend marketing dollars trying to educate them. Playing in the established market has advantages of lower barriers to entry. This will work out great for you if you have a distinct competitive advantage over your competitors. It doesn’t have to be fancy. If you are yet another cleaning service in NYC and your customer service is spot on, do email me. This will be a good enough reason for me to switch from my existing company.
- Your prior experience is not that different from other entrepreneurs who run their businesses. You graduated from NYU and worked at McKinsey for 3 years before you started your company. You hear everyone has the same background. Even this can turn out in your favor. Though it may seem like you have a lot of “you’s” running around trying to raise money, for investors this paints a pretty clear picture. If I don’t know anything else about this business at the very least I know that its founder graduated from NYU and has worked at a top consulting company. I also know that a few companies with this founder’s profiles have been acquired, so it must be a good idea to bet on founders with this type of profile.
Being a statistic means you will probably never send people to Mars, won’t make a country go bankrupt and won’t make consumers spend half of their annual salary on portable gadgets. But this doesn’t mean you won’t build amazing products. If your experience is similar to other companies don’t let that upset you. Even if this means you are not special this doesn’t mean you are not successful. In fact, the more similar you are to other companies in your experience, there more resources there are out there for you to take advantage of. It is then on you to make your business succeed. In a weird way, we live at the time when startups have all chances to win because they have so much at their fingertips. Companies I know take advantage of these resources and become successful. Other companies never become successful and we don’t hear about them. Here goes my summary – be humble, learn from the experience of other companies and don’t be afraid of thinking about yourself as a statistic. It will set you far ahead of your competition simply because everyone in this age thinks he is so special and doesn’t need to work very hard to achieve success.