Finding Your Company's Special Sauce

Last Updated Aug 17, 2010 2:38 PM EDT

Every business needs a point of differentiation, but finding your "secret sauce" isn't always as easy as it should be. Sometimes you're just too caught up in day-to-day management to really look at your company through fresh eyes. Mark Levy's new book, Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content (Berrett-Koehler, 2010), can help. Levy is a huge proponent of "freewriting," which involves writing down your ideas so quickly and spontaneously that your internal editor doesn't have the opportunity to filter them. It's a technique, says Levy, that will help you trick yourself into seeing things with a fresh perspective. "When people try to come up with solutions, it can be intimidating and they feel stuck," he says. So when Levy works with entrepreneurs, he often has them do various writing exercises that help lead them indirectly to solutions. Here are few that you can try yourself:
Question everything. "I ask clients to do ten minutes of freewriting every possible question they can think of about their business," Levy says. Examples of questions might be: What are the things I need to tell my audience about my product or service? How do I build my audience? What resource do I have to draw on? Levy doesn't look at the list. That's part of the power of freewriting; no one but you sees what you've written. "They don't even have to answer these questions if they don't want to," explains Levy. "But we talk about what those questions are which ones are worth answering."

Generate terrible ideas. "If clients can't come up with a good answer about what value they offer to customers, I have them use freewriting to come up with the worst ideas they have," says Levy. "Maybe it's boring, litigious, derivative, outrageous, or even dangerous." Levy's technique coaxes business owners into the realm of fantasy, and then gently pulls them back with the goal of examining those really bad ideas, twisting them a little, and perhaps discovering a great idea hiding in the rubble.

Tell your story. "Very often, the thing that people find most interesting is the story behind the company," says Levy. "That becomes the reason why people want to do business with them." He tells entrepreneurs to freewrite about every story they can think of that illustrates how they came to be doing what they're doing. A first lemonade stand, an early love of technology, a fortuitous meeting with a future business partner, a unique story about how a company was named - it's all great fodder, says Levy. Your stories can't be replicated by your competition and are often compelling points of differentiation.

Articulate facts. Levy often asks clients to write down the most obvious facts about their business in simple declarative sentences. Facts might include the company's location, what it sells, the guarantees it offers, the owners' philosophy, etc. "From that stuff, we are able to pull out differentiation after differentiation," says Levy. "Instead of trying to get lucky with a great idea, we look at each fact and convert it into a reason for doing business with them." For instance, one client wrote down, "I have two partners." Levy helped them realize that having three owners enabled the company to make a pledge to customers that one of them would always be available.

If you've game to try freewriting, Levy suggests that you use a timer and write as fast as you possibly can. "Your internal editor will not be able to maintain its grip and you'll come up with more honest, unusual ideas," he says. Give it try and tell us how it works for you.