George Berkowski: The power of making your business truly different

When starting a business it's vital you pinpoint what makes your idea different. It's rare that any new startup is a total one-off, the truth is you'll probably be faced with a flood of competitors when you launch. The only way to stand out from the crowd is by giving your business a USP and then making sure everyone knows it. We asked one of our Virgin StartUp Mentors, George Berkowski, to share his thoughts on how to make your business different and then how to sell that uniqueness. George was on the team that helped to grow Hailo into London's most popular taxi app, is author of the book, How to build a billion dollar app. 

"I’m fortunate enough to have started a number of businesses and been involved in a number of early stage companies – both successful and not. The most successful share many traits, and focus on making sure that they have the highest chance of success at each stage of their development.

So what separates the most successful businesses at the very earliest stage? What makes the biggest difference when you are going through the early days of creating and refining an idea?

Firstly, they realize that having a novel solution, and offering a product or service that is meaningfully differentiated in a crowded and busy world, is the best path to success. 

Am I doing something truly different?

As you think about ideas by yourself, with your family or friends, you should always keep the following in mind: how am I doing something better than the competition?

Good businesses are often born out of personal frustration – frustration with the status quo. Why doesn’t this product or service exist?

Great businesses answer this frustration in a novel way. Talking with investors like Fred Wilson (who backed business like Twitter, Tumblr, Etsy and Hailo) and Niklas Zennstrom (who was the cofounder of Skype), their view is that great businesses either create something completely novel and new, or improve something that already exists by an order of magnitude (that’s at 10x improvement).

So evaluate your business idea from that perspective: are their competitors doing what I am thinking about? The most likely answer is yes (to some extent). If so, how is my approach significantly better than what exists out there? If you can’t come up with a clear answer, then you need to keep developing your idea.

Having a different angle, superior product or service, helps massively. How? Well it gives you customers a new reason to go to you over and above a competitor. If you’re no different, people won’t come to you and your business will fold.

Let’s drill down a bit further, because you can differentiate on a number of level. Let’s use an example close to my heart: Hailo, the taxi app. I led the design and development of the app for the first few years. We knew we needed to differentiate ourselves on a number of levels:

Technology: There we other taxi apps already, so we needed to make ours even better. We made the service realtime (see drivers in the app), we made it fast (book in seconds) and we made it a lot simpler (two taps to book).

Availability: The competing services had small networks of drivers, and long waiting times. Customers hated this. So we signed up thousands of drivers, and clever technology to make sure no customer had to wait more than 2 minutes for a taxi.

Payment: At the time less than 1% of taxis in London accepted credit cards. Our app allowed people to pay with a stored credit – suddenly 60% of people paid by cards.

Price: Booking a black cab over the phone incurred booking, run-in, and waiting charges. We removed all those from our service. Customers loved it.

Security: Safety is always a big concern. We built in driver profiles, ratings and the ability to report lost items.

Hailo was so successful not for one novel reason, but a lot of significant (and novel) improvements that the competition didn’t offer. Similarly, you need to brainstorm the powerful ways to stand out from the competition. Be creative and dig into every aspect of your business idea to make it stand out.

At this point a great exercise is to start testing your idea with a lot of people. As an entrepreneur it’s easy to get lost in your owns ideas – and similarly there is nothing as helpful as asking people’s opinions about it. For my new company I have personally surveyed over 500 people about the core business idea. Continuing listening to people will help improve – and if necessary – change your idea into something people actually want.