It’s November 2013 and a social networking startup with the capability of revolutionizing the social media sphere as the world has come to know it is set to make its much anticipated launch.
Soon after its launch, the startup’s founders realized they had a hit on their hands, as people began to rapidly download their social networking app—especially on college campuses across America. The app was a hit mostly due to its main feature—which allowed users to anonymously create and participate in discussion threads within a five-mile radius of their location.
What made the startup’s app so unique is that unlike other mainstream social media platforms which required users to create profiles and handles—this app allowed users to freely exchange messages with others in their community under the bastion of anonymity—free from fearing judgment or being ridiculed for whatever messages they posted.
The startup’s app took off so fast that a year after it launched—it was ranked as the ninth most downloaded app in the United States. Sadly, that’s where the startup peaked.
In an attempt to maximize their app’s ability to generate revenue and fit in with social media giants like Facebook—the startup’s owners made a huge mistake by removing the app’s anonymity feature that made it so unique and appealing to millions of users—requiring people to now create user profiles.
Just how costly was this mistake? The result of the requirement led to a 76% decrease in downloads—which ultimately resulted in the app’s service shutting down completely in 2017 after its intellectual property was purchased by Block, Inc. (formerly, Square, Inc.) for a reported $1 million.
Although the app relaunched in 2021—Yik Yak will be remembered as a startup that never met its full potential simply because it relinquished what made it remarkable in order to fit in with other social media platforms at the time. Here’s how the same mistake could be killing your startup.
What’s wrong with fitting in?
If you’ve ever seen the movie Scarface, you can recall the film’s legendary bathtub scene in which Tony Montana sat in a huge bathtub full of bubbles watching television.
After an arguing with his wife Elvira—Tony then begins to have a conversation with his good friend and crime partner “Manny” and tells him that he’s taking the lead on a deal that Manny had set up. As Manny angrily storms out of the room after objecting Tony’s stance—Tony said what would go on to become one of the most infamous lines in the history of film when he bellowed out, “Who put this thing together? Me, that’s who!”
That line not only applied to Tony's fictional empire—it also applies to the construct of your real life startup. Regardless if you may have a partner or not—as a founder, you put your business together because you're taking risks in one way or another.
Which is why it makes your business much more vulnerable to the market when you disregard the unique ideas you have for your empire in the making just to blend in with other brands in your respective industry and avoid making waves.
The problem for startups that set out to simply “fit in” with others in their respective industry is that they make the fatal branding mistake of choosing to be ordinary—instead of remarkable.
How fitting in is a brand killer
Hey, I get it. As human beings, intrinsically—we long to belong to choice groups. In far more primitive times—our ancestors' survival actually depended on being part of a tribe. Which is why from a psychological standpoint—it’s easy to understand the safety in numbers approach when it comes to business.
Also, to position yourself as a leader of a tribe and not just an ordinary member—it often means that you’re the one on the frontline that could easily get taken out first. Pretty scary stuff, right?
But in order for your startup—as a brand, to be truly distinguishable—you must be willing to sacrifice being totally isolated from the norms others in your industry are adhering to in order to convince your audience why your brand is not only their best choice—but their only choice.
“A brand is a product with a compelling story. A brand offers quintessential qualities for which the consumer believes there’s absolutely no substitute.” States Toniq founder and brand strategist Cheryl Swanson in author Debbie Millman’s book, Brand Thinking And Other Noble Pursuits.
If your audience cannot distinguish your brand from your competitors besides just having a different name and logo than theirs—they’ll have no added incentive to support your product over theirs. Which will essentially destroy your brand.
The power of branding and standing out
Even if your startup falls into an industry where the order of business is pretty monotonous—there’s still methods that you can take to help your startup stand out. Don’t believe me? Take the insurance industry for example.
I’m sure most people share the same sentiment that the insurance industry isn't the least bit sexy or riveting. But have you ever noticed that some of the best advertisements these days come from insurance companies?
Characters like: Allstate’s Mayhem, Jake from State Farm, and Flo from Progressive have become household names in the U.S. while creating some of the most memorable ads despite the fact that the companies they represent fall into a pretty…let’s just say—unexciting industry.
Yet, those characters have become celebrities in their own right due to a concerted effort by their respective brands to differentiate themselves from the proverbial pack by putting an emphasis on distinction in their marketing efforts.
Author and marketing guru Seth Godin underlined the importance of a brand standing out in the marketplace in his critically acclaimed book Purple Cow, "Boring always leads to failure. Boring is always the most risky strategy."
Instead of operating a vanilla startup that aims to fit right in with the established companies in your industry, take the alternative route by thinking of ways to "fit out" from them. As Godin says, “If you acknowledge that you'll never catch up by being the same—make a list of ways you can catch up by being different.”