My little sister is in her fifth year of med school in France:
For 2 straight years, she’s studied 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week to prepare for the biggest exam of her academic career which will determine her specialty.
She could specialize in ophthalmology, plastic surgery, dermatology, cardiology, nephrology… the list goes on and on.
And then after another 3 to 5 years of schooling, she’ll be a medical doctor, and she’ll keep her specialty her entire life.
Imagine you have a pain in your right eye that hasn’t gone away, and your family doctor diagnoses glaucoma (a common eye condition where the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain, becomes damaged).
Instead of recommending an ophthalmologist who specializes in the disease, they tell you, “You’re in luck! We know glaucoma stuff. Let’s take you in right now for laser treatment followed by surgery.”
“Oh, and if your partner still struggles with sleep apnea, we’ll make ‘em sleep like a kangaroo!”
“Oh, and if your tooth is sore, we’ll make it new!"
“Oh, and if your pet fish has a tummy ache, we’ll help with that too!”
I bet you’d run away. Far, far away.
You intuitively understand that, as Youngme Moon puts in her book, Different, “excellence in any extreme always implies a trade-off.”
Let me repeat that because it’s so critical.
“Excellence in any extreme always implies a trade-off.”
But I know what you’re thinking already…
“A family doctor isn’t excellent at anything since they don’t specialize, so your argument doesn’t work! Just like all-in-one software tools that do a bit of everything, or supermarkets that offer everything under the sun.”
Here’s the kicker though.
They ARE excellent at one core value, and there is a trade-off.
For the family doctor: their core value is providing comprehensive care to patients of all ages in their local area.
Their knowledge is limited to common diseases and issues. They have to refer you to a specialist when things get serious.
For an all-in-one software tool like Hotjar: their core value is helping SMBs understand what people really do on their websites with heatmaps, recordings, and surveys.
Big businesses who need deeper insights and integrations would need to use another tool.
For supermarkets: their core value is giving customers a one-stop-shop solution.
You have to shop elsewhere if you want high-quality products and expert recommendations.
The number of features isn’t the determining factor of excellence, and it’s certainly not what differentiates you.
What makes you excellent in the eyes of your customers is that all of your features, whether you have 2 or 200, are congruent with your one core value in a specific category.
And since excellence in any extreme implies a trade-off, there will be trade-offs, but, you know what? Your customers will be thankful for your excellence, and they will rationalize the trade-offs, just like they do with their doctors and their supermarkets.
Most of us are afraid of trade-offs.
Instead of focusing our attention on one core problem to solve, our knee-jerk reaction is to add, add, add.
We add more products/services (what Youngme Moon calls augmentation by multiplication).
We add features and more features (what Youngme Moon calls augmentation by addition).
We obsess over keeping ALL of our options open just in case.
We add to attract even more customers.
We refuse to say “No!”
We’re faced with an unlimited number of choices, and it overwhelms us.
We even regret our past choices and change our minds.
The grass always seems greener on the other side, so we change our minds and never commit to focusing on one thing.
For example, if you add a live chat to your website and you don’t reply straight away, you might be worse off than if you don’t have one.
For example, if I were to add an e-commerce store selling Everyone Hates Marketers merchandising, I'd likely need to spend a few hours a week maintaining it, replying to questions, processing refunds...
For example, if you offer a website audit to monitor for privacy issues, adding an SEO module would probably make potential customers compare you with leading SEO tools like Ahrefs.
Or you might decide it was all a waste of time and be tempted to remove that SEO feature, but...
This is called the “hedonic treadmill,” a term coined by Brickman and Campbell in their article, “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” (1971).
Customers will have a tendency to take any improvements or new features for granted soon after they’ve discovered it.
That new feature is their new norm.
And then, good luck trying to remove those features!
In his book, Predatory Thinking, Dave Trott illustrates why adding incongruent features takes away from the excellence of your core value:
In the book, he talks about messaging and why you should say only one thing, but I would argue that staying congruent should apply to anything across the 4 Ps of marketing: product, place, promotion, and price.
Instead of giving you a step-by-step, I’m going to give you a few mental models to play with so you can double down on your one core value and accept the trade-offs.
Cereal box: Imagine your product or service fits in a cereal box and you have to pick just a few things to say, one core image, and one color to help it stand out. By just focusing attention on what will fit on the cereal box, you will realize what is important, and you can remove everything else.
80% less costs: Seth Godin mentions this one in his book, Purple Cow. What if you had to create an alternative to your product/service by reducing 80% of the cost? What would you have to stop doing? What would you have to remove out of the feature sets or out of the behavior of the entire company? This is another exercise that can help you identify what’s most important so you can remove everything else.
Clichés: This is one of my favorites. Ask your customers, “What do you hate the most about our category?” Your customers might reveal category conventions that every competitor is doing even though people hate it, and then you can simply remove those things from your offer. This question alone can lead to a lot of ideas, so ask it on surveys, customer interviews, however you can.
Uniqueness: You can also double down on uniqueness — the thing that people absolutely love about your offer. Momoko Price tells us to ask customers one simple question, “Why did they decide to go with you instead of somebody else?” Identify that uniqueness factor, and double down on it by removing other things so people can really focus on it.
Alternative worlds: Look at companies, creators and artists that you admire, and instead of finding out what they are doing, identify what they’re NOT doing. What are they not saying? Which channels don’t they spend any time on? You’ll soon realize all the trade-offs they had to make, and you can model them.
Best customers: What can you do to better serve your best customers? How would your product/service look if you only focused on your best customers without really caring about customers that don’t necessarily fit the bill?
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