Technology is both our best friend and our worst enemy. By dismantling the traditional barriers of entry to businesses, digital technologies have helped startups to leapfrog larger competitors. This is a boon to companies that are comfortable in navigating the churning waves of the online world. Unfortunately, technology has also made the playing field more competitive for all businesses. Your competitors are now global, and they can hail from any continent that is wired and wireless. Being online isn’t enough – you need to differentiate your startup from the millions of others trying to grab a slice of the diminishing pie. Here’s how. Find a Suitable Niche First and foremost, you need to identify a growing industry to anchor your startup in. To do so, conduct research both online and offline to determine which customer needs are under served by incumbents. Use a tool like SEMRush or SERPs to determine keywords that your prospective customers are searching for which have low to medium levels of competition. Visit websites like Quora or Yahoo! Answers to see what the commonly asked questions related to your niche are. Is there an opportunity to provide a solution in that area? If you’re selling a product, you may wish to check out Amazon’s list of bestselling items. These may give you a hint on what is moving in the market. Choose the Right Customers After you’ve determined the best industry to base your business on, your next goal is to find the best customers to serve. Flesh out your customer profile by imagining who they could be. Ensure that they include the following: Geographics: Country, Region and Neighbourhood Demographics: Age, Education, Sex, Income Levels, Housing Types Psychographics: Interests, Attitudes, Hobbies and Lifestyles Buying Behaviours: Frequency and Size of Purchases, Modes of Purchase Online Preferences: Social Media Habits, Frequencies and Duration of Use The best customers to serve need not be the largest or most obvious demographic. Rather, they are the ones which are likely to be loyal customers over their entire lifetime. Solve a Nagging Problem or Unfulfilled Desire Yes, you can be profitable if you can help your potential customers to do one of two things: Resolve a problem or pain point that has been bugging them for the longest time Realise a desire or dream which they may have Now in achieving either of these objectives, you’ll need to put on your customer’s shoes and visualise what he or she is going through. A good way to do so is to surf Internet forums and websites to see what the hot topics related to your product or service category are. Craft Your Online Brand Story Once you’ve identified where your targeted area could be, you’ll need to establish yourself online. The best way to do so is to craft a good brand story. This can be achieved through the following steps: Identify your customer as a protagonist Describe his or her challenges and problems Introduce your brand as a helpful “mentor” or guide (“How May I Help You Today?”) Provide recommended solutions to your customer Paint the picture of how success would look like An essential part of content marketing, brand storytelling helps you to differentiate your brand from the millions of others out there. Putting your customer right in the middle of your narrative puts the focus right smack where it matters. Which brings you to my next point. Be Super Helpful — Even Before The Sale Yes, I know that you do want to talk about the 100 ways in which your product is superior to what competitors are offering right now in the market. Or how you are cheaper, better and faster than the incumbents out there. Before you do so, however, consider the golden rule in marketing: Customers only care about your brand when they know that you care about them. Now how can you show care to your customers? Here are some ideas to start with: Provide value to your customers by sharing useful tips, techniques and tactics that are related to your product or service category. Help your customers to become great at what they do. Make them badass users. Show interest in what they do by engaging with them both online and offline. Answer their queries on your social media pages (unless of course they are trolls). Respond to both their complaints and compliments. Make it Easy to Try and Buy One of the cardinal rules in sales is this: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers To Buy Now what this means is to focus your energies less on the slickness and sassiness of your advertisements, and more on making the process as easy as ABC. This could mean including a step-by-step guide on how they can go ahead to purchase your product or service, including risk-free guarantees and warranties, improving delivery channels, and incorporating customer care provisions (eg technical support). You may also want to highlight testimonials from past customers, or build trust by describing what your company’s track record has been as well as the clients you have served. Continually Iterate and Learn Have you heard of the Lean Startup? Inspired by the lean manufacturing process pioneered by Toyota, it is centred on building what is called a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and rolling it out to the market so that products and services could be continually tested and improved. Through a process of validated learning, you can match your customer performance metrics against your goals, and tweak your product and processes so that they can achieve a better outcome. Now it doesn’t matter if you are not in the manufacturing business. You can similarly apply this process in a retail, service or consulting business. The key thing here is not to wait until your product or service is perfect before rolling it out to the market. Rather, you should establish what is acceptable as a basic product, get as many early users to purchase and use it, and actively solicit their feedback and experiences so that you can improve it further.