You’ll never be in the ‘sweet spot’ if you chase significance through your competitors.

I’ve been doing lots of consulting work lately with companies on the brink. Businesses that had established enough value to get off the ground but never really hit it big. They ask a simple question of us … ‘how can we make as much money in this market as some of the people you write about in your books did?’ We usually tell them some version of the following.

At some point, in some way, you have to center yourself and your business around something that is uniquely yours. Something only you can own. Something you do so extraordinarily well that people enjoy paying you money to see you do it. Something you might even become known someday as being the ‘best in the world at’.

About 10 years ago, I participated in a branding session led by Al Ries, author of Positioning and dozens of other best-selling marketing books. I remember the room breaking out in an argument over the defining vision for the business with two distinct camps:

We know what it is we do and we need to stick to it.

We agree but it’s not significant enough. We need to strive for something bigger.

These are the defining moments for leaders. I remember Al letting this go on for quite some time and then when the room grew quiet saying simply … “it doesn’t matter whether it’s significant yet. If it’s yours, you can make it so. If it’s not, you’ll never succeed at it anyway.”

Wow. What simple, practical advice for us to follow. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it better than anyone else in your world.

When Chase Danielson started ZipCar, the rental car market hadn’t seen anything new in 50 years … the idea for a subscription service for city dwellers seemed nutty.

When Tom Watson started IBM, the market for computers was estimated to be four!

When Sergey Brin and Larry Page started their little search business, they were told there was no more room for yet another search engine. They would have to sell to portals.

Even the great Steve Jobs encountered skepticism when Apple entered the phone market pretty late with the iPhone. Didn’t everyone already own a Blackberry?

When Starbuck’s started, Folgers had dominated the coffee market for two decades.

Does it surprise you that an online environment for sharing student information invented by a college freshman could turn into the hub of the social media world?

Hindsight is 20/20 but the point really is that starting out, none of these investments looked very smart or safe. What these successful entrepreneurs learned has been repeated time and again in every market in every decade. It’s not the size of the market that mattered, it’s the quality of the deliverable.

When we did our research for the ‘Tuned In’ book, I found it fascinating to listen to people tell their success stories. It amazed me that they almost all had a largely similar tale to tell. It went something like this:

Q. How did you create such a breakout success?

A. I don’t know really. We didn’t set out to. We just saw this problem that people were having doing …. and we thought we could help so we started to build a company that solved that problem better than it had ever been solved before. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew, we woke up one day and had 1000 employees. I never, ever thought it would get this big.


Creating success in any market environment requires a focus on that ‘one thing’ that defines you. The really sad stories to us are from the leaders and businesses who abandoned a purpose too soon. The sweet spot may not start out being big but with your focus, you can make it large enough to support your business. And, maybe, just maybe, find a cause that grows on its own with you at the forefront.