By Christopher Lochhead, host of the "Legends & Losers" podcast
- A few lucky folks “find” their place in the world. Even luckier ones don’t fit into an existing category -- they “make” their own.
- “Making” your place (aka designing your category) involves asking yourself three key questions.
- Legendary businesses “make” their place, too. Thus, category design can work magic in both your business and personal life.
Some people seem to naturally find their place in the world. Their “talents” become apparent as kids, and they get really good at those talents. They study, train and ultimately get a great job or start a company doing their thing. If this is you, congratulations. And you don’t really need to read this post.
But if you, like me, grew up on The Island of Misfit Toys, you might want to keep reading. Those of us who can’t find our place in the world have to make our place in the world.
Consider my friend Dushka Zapata. She is a successful marketing and PR executive turned communications coach and public speaker. For years she was also a writer in a sea of thousands of other writers. Not now. She made a new place in the world for herself.
Dushka imagined a new place for herself on the digital bookshelf. She designed a new category of writer by combining her unique POV with a new platform: Quora, a website where questions are asked, edited, answered and organized by a self-selecting community of users.
Today, Dushka is an “amateur social writer” who built her career not with books, but by responding to directly to people’s questions on Quora. For free.
Traditional writers can hide from their readers behind keyboards while getting paid to publish books. Dushka is the opposite. Almost everything she writes is in response to a question someone cares about. And everything she writes is available for free. And she makes herself available to her readers almost daily.
Today, Dushka’s name has become synonymous with “amateur social writer” and in some ways with Quora itself. Her work has been viewed over 100 million times on Quora alone. By way of comparison, Hillary Clinton’s Quora posts have 31 million Quora views. Dushka is a bestselling author and has a day job as VP of Communications at Zendesk.
But most importantly, Dushka has made a difference to millions by parlaying what she loves to do into a new category she created.
Position yourself, or be positioned.
When companies create a niche for themselves, it’s called “category design.” This management discipline helps companies create not just a new product, but a whole new market category. Historically, the innovators who successfully design a new product, company and category are the big winners.For example, Facebook is the king of social networks, and Amazon is the queen of ecommerce.
Of course, Facebook is the category king of social networks.
On the personal level, category design is about making your place in the world -- identifying what makes you unique to a problem people care about and then positioning yourself as the solution.
Category design is different than “personal branding.” Branding preaches making your name known -- the more people hear or see your brand, the better. Category design is about owning a niche, based on solving a problem of importance.
Personal category design is about taking advantage of the exponential value of your different versus the incremental value of your better. Imagine being so respected in your field that other people who do similar things are compared to you because you are the category king.
In some ways, category design is the life hack.
Pablo Picasso was “just” another painter… until he explained to the world that what he was doing was a new style of painting called cubism. Cubism was different. It required different skills to paint and a different paradigm to appreciate. Pablo taught the world to think the way he did. And as a result, he changed the definition of what “a painting” is. He was the category designer of cubism. When cubism took off, it took Pablo with it. He became the cubist category king.
With his artwork, Pablo created a whole new category of painting called cubism. Here’s a cubist painting by artist Fernand Leger.
A company’s value largely depends on three factors. First is the potential for its category. Second is the position of the company in that category, because the category king takes most of the economics. And the third factor is performance -- proof that the category king can deliver on its promises to the category.
Take GOJO Industries, for example. With its introduction of Purell, this venture convinced millions of parents and germaphobes that we should use “hand sanitizer,” even though no such concept had existed before and everyone had survived just fine. At one point, Purell controlled more than 70 percent of the market, and its name is still the one to beat for mindshare.
A version of that formula applies to people: Over time, many successful people come to “own” the category king position in their market, however big or small the category.
Sarah Blakely “owns” shapewear, a category she created with the introduction of Spanx in 2000.
At some point in life, all of us face the decision to either make ourselves fit the world or make the world fit us. So whether you’re an aspiring accountant, cook or a wannabe Evan Spiegel (founder of Snapchat) here are some questions to consider when designing your own personal category.
1. As a person, what problem do I solve?
New categories emerge when a new problem gets defined (i.e. Henry Ford with the “horseless carriage”) or an existing problem gets reimagined (i.e. Travis Kalanick, the Uber founder, and his “smartphone-powered, personal transportation”).
The bigger and more urgent the problem, the more time and money people will put into solving it. Becoming a category king or queen is in many ways a function of becoming known for solving a problem that matters.
2. What makes me different, not better?
When you position yourself as better, you are moving into someone else’s territory, always fighting for attention and having to prove that you’re better than they are.
When two people say, “I’m the best,” by definition one of them is lying.
The minute you say you’re better than “X,” people are left thinking about “X,” not you. For years, Pepsi made a multi-billion-dollar mistake by running ads comparing themselves to Coke with a campaign called “The Pepsi Challenge,” which proclaimed that Pepsi is better than Coke. This effort only reinforced to the world that Coke is the category king of soda.
After decades of cola category wars, Coke controls 42 percent of the space while Pepsi has 30 percent, according to Beverage Digest.
3. What’s my signature point of view?
Here’s where you put yourself under the microscope, figure out who you are and develop your story.
Putting yourself through a POV exercise can be incredibly clarifying. How do you define who you are and what you want to mean to the world? How do you want people to see you? How do you want to describe the problem you solve?
Write it down, perfect your story, and hone it until it sounds like a tight, conversational, presentation, so that if you had two minutes to position yourself, you could go through your POV and anyone would “get” you.
Your category makes your career.
Category designers start out as struggling pirates, dreamers and/or innovators. The ones that design their own personal category achieve the deep-rooted satisfaction that comes making their very own place in the world.
I know you can do it too.
Best wishes for legendary success, and pirate on,