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The key to building a successful business? Finding your point of difference

Differentiation is important when starting and building a business, but be wary of being different for the sake of it

Ed Smith hands playing chess illustration

Politicians cling to how messages “land” in focus groups and polls, businesses to market research, and creatives to recent hit successes. Whatever the sector, the impulse is the same: to discover and understand what’s working right now for other people.

But the crucial part of that sentence isn’t “what’s working” but “other people”. Because you aren’t other people and the fact it’s working for them doesn’t mean it will work for you – still less that you should be relinquishing your own unique perspective along the way. “If I’d asked people what they wanted,” quipped Henry Ford, “they’d have said a faster horse.”

Five years ago, I co-founded the Institute of Sports Humanities (ISH). The inspiration came from two experiences. First, when I’d been made captain of my professional cricket team, I looked around for a university leadership programme that could help prepare me for the position but failed to find one.

Second, a decade or so later and now working in academia, I felt that sport was wrongly positioned inside university bureaucracies. It was often stuck in a silo, unable to break free from its academic origins in physical education. There was so much “sports science” and so little “sports humanities”.

Finding your company’s vision

My vision for ISH was to help leaders in sport (both on and off the field) by encouraging the interplay of theory and practice, unifying different academic tools in an inter-disciplinary approach and by viewing sport within the context of wider culture. While there are always technical and scientific strands to sports leadership, I’ve never seen a solely technical or scientific approach turn out to be successful.

Sport is played by human beings and entertains human beings. If you forget those two facts, you’re moving away from the essence of the whole enterprise.

Inevitably, when founding the institute, we soon encountered pressure from academic insiders to reconsider and retreat into the tried-and-tested “sports science” space. If I’d been a more reasonable person, I’d have flipped.

However, ISH was lucky to have the support of the sports entrepreneur Andrew White and the educationalist (and then University of Buckingham vice-chancellor) Sir Anthony Seldon, who were both prepared to take a different approach. We wanted to encourage the most interesting conversations at the intersection of elite sport and academia – everything else would flow from that.

If we’d followed what everyone else was doing, ISH wouldn’t have found its voice.
Five years on, ISH has educated captains, coaches, technical directors and business leaders from across all leading sports. (In the opening round of the 2024 first-class cricket season, one ISH student was bowling at another – with the batsman going on to make 335 not out in his first game as club captain.)

The ‘but’ in differentiation

Differentiation, however, comes with a very important “but”. If the motivation to deviate from the consensus crowd is political expedience or just PR, then the contrast will only be skin deep. Differentiation at a philosophical level should drive a USP, not
the other way around. Trying to be different for the sake of it is already trying too hard.

While I’ve never liked the saying “too clever by half” (instead, the greater threat is “too stupid by far”), there is something useful in the phrase’s implied warning. Exaggeration shouldn’t be allowed to impinge on effectiveness. It also calls to mind Nicolas Chamfort’s aphorism: “Having lots of ideas doesn’t mean you’re clever, any more than having lots of soldiers means you’re a good general.”

There is a parallel here between interesting projects and interesting people. When a person self-consciously strives to be different or eccentric, it’s usually boring. When people are different or eccentric due to a naturally distinct way of seeing things, they are usually interesting. (Genuine eccentrics, after all, think it is “normal behaviour” that is strange.)

Though he exaggerated the case, C.S.Lewis put this brilliantly: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth…you will, nine times out of 10, become original without having noticed it.”

The wider impact of differentiation

Differentiation has important implications for building effective teams. A team or group isn’t likely to achieve collective distinctness if they are all alike individually. Diversity of background is only part of the point here (and the lesser part). Instead, it’s the diversity of habits and outlooks that is more fundamental.

If you’re hiring people whose world views are comparable, then you’re not adding much value to the whole. However, hiring people with personal intellectual conviction is always going to expand the collective bandwidth and creative tension.

What if we turn the challenge towards our own lives: are we in the right places and around the right people to give ourselves the best chance of achieving personal differentiation?

A novelist friend, someone with no interest in sport, once posed an important question when I was in my late 20s that I couldn’t answer: “Can you play cricket significantly differently from other professional players?” The answer (which I didn’t admit but knew deep down to be true): not differently enough to justify extending the commitment.

My friend’s question emboldened me not to continue with my playing career (I retired from cricket at 30) to the detriment of other possibilities (even though I’d have to start over and begin further down the ladder).

It’s not only cautiousness that prevents us from doing something different and interesting. Another risk is getting too comfortable.

Ed Smith is director of the Institute of Sports Humanities and author of Making Decisions

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