“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Published in 1920 by respected poet Robert Frost, ‘the road less travelled’ talked to the value of what I call the contrarian approach to life. An approach I now believe to be not just an interesting but an essential business model, particularly for small and mid sized businesses.
Are we humans so much different to sheep? We seem hostage to trends and fashion; repeatedly get sucked into economic boom and bust cycles; and we seem desperate to imitate and mimic others. As early as the 17th century humans have been involved in herd mentality financial disasters, witness the Dutch tulip bubble of 1637. These cycles of excess and poverty have continued unabated with the latest GFC of 2007.
And how come every kid under the age of 20 wears identical black Nike shoes! I was in Paris some weeks ago and literally every kid was wearing these shoes, the same ones being worn all over Sydney and how many other cities around the world?
Lets explore the logic of the contrarian approach for a moment. When following the crowd, you are always behind, by definition. Fad followers are behind from the start. It’s therefore quite impossible to become an industry leader when travelling in the wake of the competition. Think about it another way. When everyone is competing for the same market, and very often with virtually identical products and services, entire market segments are left almost untouched. A contrarian would happily find and fill those profitable business niches.
In our recent experience, in the world of business and technology, nearly the whole innovation eco-system seems intent in trying to invent the next social media miracle. At EmpireOne we run a small business incubator and almost 100% of the business ideas pitched to us in the last 12 – 18 months have involved some form of social media application. I know it’s hot, BUT this space is extremely crowded and competitive and is ‘owned’ by several hugely successful and well established brands – you may know of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn? No doubt there will be a next big thing and then another, but how many millions of startups will fail in pursuit of these few big opportunities? Even more evidence was found at the CeBIT technology showcase held recently in Sydney, with the vast majority of the some 150 small business innovation stands working on a ‘social’ business system of some sort.
Meanwhile, less obvious but still valuable opportunities lie neglected. Is it possible that by the simple act of being contrary you could uncover these hidden gems and prosper as a result? Just by looking where no-one else is looking? At EmpireOne, we have done just that. While running our incubator program, we decided to concurrently start conversations with all manner of traditional businesses with the hope of uncovering latent needs. Within a few months we heard the same story from a dozen small businesses in the same industry sector.
Six months on, our nearly complete Subscribility platform is a member, customer and product management system for small and mid sized wineries. And even better, we have 75 small NSW wineries pre-registered without any significant marketing effort. In this very old and long established industry, you would expect it to be well supplied with appropriate technology. Not so, it appears that not only in Australia but around the world small wineries have been neglected by software suppliers.
So, how many other improbable opportunities like this one lie waiting? We don’t know but we’re looking hard and you should too!