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Do you stand out from the crowd? Unlikely…

Jul 31, 2011 Success, Sunday Nation

Have you ever read a book where you want to stand up on your bed (that’s where I read) and clap on every other page?

Seth Godin’s Linchpin is just that book for me. It is a manifesto, a call to action, a drumroll. So you can imagine how fortunate I felt to meet the writer himself right here in Kenya recently. And not just meet him, but have a very valuable hour in his company before introducing him to a local audience.

Unfortunately it was a closed audience, as Seth was on a private visit with Acumen Fund – where he is a key advisor. But allow me to take up a couple of columns to transmit to the rest of you the gist of Seth’s message.

To do that, I want you to imagine a chap called Godfrey. Godfrey is a construction site worker. You will often see him huddled outside construction sites at the crack of dawn, along with dozens of others. Godfrey and his brethren await, every morning, the chance to work in a construction site at a measly wage.

Every morning, the site foreman comes out briefly, looks around, and quickly identifies a few extra workers that he needs for that day. Sometimes Godfrey is chosen, and sometimes he is not. He doesn’t really know why. Godfrey’s fellow work-seekers all look the same: desperate to work for a minimum wage.

Seth tells us that Godfrey is fungible, a non-choice. The foreman does not expend any effort in his choice because it doesn’t really matter. He needs cheap, obedient workers to do physical work.

As you can imagine, none of us want to be a Godfrey. But here’s the thing: most of us are. Even those who get full-time construction work are still Godfreys: expendable and interchangeable on a whim. Even those who shed the blue collar for a white one are still Godfreys. Even seasoned professionals are usually Godfreys – lawyers, accountants, doctors, marketers – despite appearances.

Those of you who run your own businesses might be emitting a self-satisfied snigger at this point – you have, of course, left the Godfrey brigade. Or have you? Most businesses, unfortunately, are also Godfreys: they do nothing distinctive; they stand next to dozens of near-identical businesses, all waiting for the customer to choose them. When businesses are all pretty much identical, what does the customer do? Choose the cheapest one, of course.

Is your business a Godfrey? Probably. Chances are, it does things pretty much exactly the same way as its competitors – maybe a little different, but not by much. This is why, for example, traditional computer makers are in so much trouble. Whether you bought a Toshiba, a Dell or an HP – they all looked the same, they all ran Windows, and they were all powered by Intel chips. Is it any wonder the savvy customer bought the cheapest me-too offering, and killed the industry’s margins?

One company was different, though – Apple. It looked different, felt different, was sold differently. For a while, Apple suffered because it didn’t conform with industry standards. It wasn’t part of the norms club. But eventually, Apple’s difference won through. It is now on course to become the most valuable company – not just in its industry, but in the world.

What about you – are you a Godfrey? Does your CV sit in a stack next to dozens of others? Is your cubicle identical to all adjacent ones? Is your MBA just like the next person’s? Thought so.

The Godfreys of this world (apologies to all the people named Godfrey!) are doomed to be subject to the whims of others. If you, or your business, is a Godfrey, you need to rethink. See you here next week to consider how you might do that.

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