I’ve spoken with many freelancers who were hung up on the idea of “uniqueness” – of bringing something totally new to the world.
How can we win clients, we may think, if we’re not unique relative to our competition?
I admit that I’ve fallen into this trap myself. (And it is a trap.)
I’ve thought, “There’s been so much written about branding that I can’t possibly add anything new.” So I didn’t. At times, I let months pass without writing, publishing or posting.
Which is to say I fell completely off the radar of people who might have hired me.
My goal today is to relieve you of the burden of uniqueness, and to offer you a better option.
Here are four problems with making “uniqueness” your standard:
Problem #1: It’s an Impossible Goal
“Unique” is an imprecise, often-misused word.
Personal example: Back in 1993, when I was a young associate brand manager, I launched White Mystery Airheads.
Depending on your point of view, White Mystery Airheads were:
- Somewhat unique – the combination of “white candy + unknown flavor” hadn’t been done before.
- Not that unique – they were still recognizable as Airheads, after all.
White Mystery quickly became the #2-selling Airheads flavor. So we may reasonably conclude that (a) consumers saw it as different enough to try and (b) they liked it once they tried it.
But! The Oxford dictionary definition of “unique” is “being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.”
Did White Mystery Airheads meet that definition? No.
Does any product? No. There’s always a frame of reference.
So we’d be silly to hold ourselves, as freelancers and consultants, to that standard. Meaningfully different? Absolutely. Completely unique? Nah.
Problem #2: Uniqueness Is High-Risk
If we aim for “completely unique,” or even “massively different,” we are introducing risk into our operations.
Numerous studies of new product launches have created data that looks about like this:
What this means: The more “new and different” you are, the greater your chances of both profitable success and miserable, abject failure. It’s a package deal.
Put another way: Massive difference does not guarantee success. It merely increases the odds of a big win – or a big loss.
So it can make sense as part of a portfolio – many safe bets mixed in with a few long shots. But if you only get to place one bet, that big loss could destroy your business.
And as freelancers, we’ve placed one pretty large bet. The portfolio approach doesn’t apply to us.
Our personal appetites for risk will vary. But I wouldn’t bet my livelihood unless I had a concept that was extremely well-validated.
Problem #3: Uniqueness Can Keep You From Getting Started
As I mentioned in the intro, aiming for uniqueness can have an inhibiting effect. It can be paralyzing instead of liberating.
If you wait until you have a business idea that’s “totally unique,” you’ll never launch.
If you wait until you have something “totally unique” to share on social, you’ll never post.
There’s something to be said for consistently showing up, with value and a point of view. Do that long enough, and your body of work will speak for itself.
But don’t wait to have something “totally unique” before you make a move. It’s self-defeating.
Problem #4: Most Buyers Don’t Want Uniqueness
This is the biggie:
Do our buyers even want uniqueness?
Most often, they don’t.
And for mission-critical, zero-tolerance-for-failure projects – the kinds of projects many of us traffic in – they almost never do.
Think about it. If you need new hardwood floors for your home, do you go with the guy who has a “new-to-the-world, never-been-done-before” installation process?
Absolutely not. You can’t afford to be his lab rat. The consequences of failure are too great.
You want the guy you can trust. He doesn’t need to reinvent hardwood floors; he just needs to be very good at installing them. He needs to be reliable. He needs to be experienced.
And, usually, he needs to have at least one glowing referral from someone you trust. (This is why positive word-of-mouth is invaluable.)
Important: If he checks all those boxes, you’ll probably pay a little more for his services. An increased comfort level usually comes with a price.
Most clients – the serious ones, anyways – are the same way. I know this, because I used to be the client.
Whether I needed a promotions firm, a package designer, or a pricing expert, I was never in the market for “new & unproven.” Not once.
I wanted “tried & true.” I wanted a specialist. I wanted to know that they had solved a problem like mine many times.
It wasn’t novelty that sold me. It was experience.
A Better Way to Go
Rather than striving for the impossible goal of uniqueness in everything you say or do, I recommend that you do the following:
Show up with value, consistently. Remember that “unique” is in the eye of the beholder. Even if you’re saying something for the 50th time, it may be the first time someone in your audience is ready to hear it.
Have a point of view. Don’t provoke for the sake of provocation. There’s enough of that in the world. Aim for “useful provocation” – the kind of thing that makes someone say, “Huh. I never thought of it quite like that.”
Master your craft. Keep leveling up. Get better every month. Be the best hardwood flooring installer in your particular postal district.
Do exceptional work when given the chance. That’s the work that gets you rehired and referred. And that will set you apart from those who are inconsistent, inexperienced, or just not that good. (This is a fair percentage of your competition.)
“The only person who does X” has its merits, but it’s extremely difficult to achieve in practice.
“A reliably excellent provider of X” is much more achievable.
And it’s entirely viable. If enough people see you that way, you can do this freelance thing forever.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
Need help avoiding the trap of uniqueness, and instead stepping toward meaningful difference? I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. Click here to find out more about how my customized coaching can help you level up.
Copyright 2022 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the footer section.