A few weeks ago I read the novel Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway and I’ve been thinking of the following quote pretty much everyday since I read it:
“Where would you hide a tree? In a forest, of course.”
I think there are two main takeaways:
First – the more obvious one – if you want to blend in, surround yourself with similar people, things, thoughts, etc. Be in a herd. Find or create a forest.
Second – the inverse – if you want to be distinctive, to be different from everyone else, you must either remove yourself from the forest or stop being a tree.
This concept of either trying to be in a forest, or not, is an essential aspect of business. From the outstanding book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd by Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon: “at the heart of business success is the ability to compete; the ability to compete, in turn, is dependent on the ability to differentiate from competitors.”
In summarizing Different, the Harvard Business Review states:
“Most companies, in most industries, have a kind of tunnel vision. They chase the same opportunities that every other company is chasing, they miss the same opportunities that everyone else is missing. It’s the companies and brands that see a different game that win big–but all too often, the big companies in a field see things exactly the same way. “
Again, from Different:
“In category after category companies have gotten so locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate–which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another. Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become …Products are no longer competing against each other; they are collapsing into each other in the minds of anyone who consumes them.”
Many (maybe most) businesses have become competition machines overly focused on growth and profits. Most seem to have lost sight of their reason for being in business and what special thing they provide that no other business does. A great question to ask about a business that can tell you whether they are differentiated is: “Would there be a void in the universe if the company went out of business?”
In that vein, what companies do you love and would be upset if they went out of business? For me those companies are: Southwest Airlines, Apple, Trader Joes, Spotify, Newton (running shoes) and Amazon. Most other businesses I’d be just as happy using a competitor. For instance, I’m typing this on an HP laptop. If HP went out of business I’d be just as happy with a Lenovo or Dell. If Charter Spectrum went out of business I’d be just as happy with another internet provider. The same is true of Verizon, my lawn care company, my dentist, my cloud based backup service, bank, credit card company, etc. etc. – I’d be just as happy at a competitor.
What is true for businesses is also true of people. It is comfortable to be in the herd – to be a tree within a forest. But that is a topic for another day . . .