On Shark Tank, when one of the investors gets intrigued by a startup, before they make an offer they almost always ask if the product has been patented. These savvy investors know that if the product isn’t defensible, they could become victims of their own success. As soon as they start gaining momentum, a hundred knockoffs will hit the market. And without a patent, they have no defense.
But for creative entrepreneurs, we can’t patent our talent. We simply have to contend with the reality that the creative marketplace will always be offering up young new talent that’s willing to work for rates that established creatives can’t match. So how will you protect your creative practice from the competition?
Every Spring a fresh new set of creatives graduate from art school and hit the marketplace. Some will get jobs, but others will start freelancing. And they’ll be hungry for creative opportunities to prove their talent. And while they may have some student debt to manage, all of their other expenses are as low as they’ll ever be. No mortgage, no kids to feed, and saving for retirement is well off on the horizon. Since time is the biggest expense that factors into your costs, and therefore your pricing, these energized young creatives are going to be willing to work harder and for less—older established creatives simply can’t compete.
So how can you hedge against the competition? No doubt there’s no shortcut to experience. And many of your clients do value your experience and the dependability that comes from your much longer tenure in business. But how much do they value that? How much more can you charge, compared to starting freelance rates, before the difference starts to become more tempting than your clients can resist?
If you want to stay competitive, you had better not depend solely on how long you’ve been in business. You need a stronger position than that. You need to find ground you can defend, something that makes you inherently valuable, something that your client can’t easily replace.
Of course, if you’ve been listening to 5 Minutes on Creative Entrepreneurship for very long you already know the answer to this problem. PinPoint Positioning is the way to separate yourself from the competition. It’s not exactly a patent, but in some ways it’s even better. When you establish a narrow focus for your creative specialization, and also focus on applying your expertise in one specific industry—the depth of insight you gain, the specialized knowledge of the field, simply can’t be knocked off.
It costs upwards of $25,000 for a startup to apply for a patent—without any guarantee that it will even be granted. And that paper means nothing unless the company is prepared to spend even more money on lawyers and lawsuits to defend the patent.
But when you build personal expertise—when you apply your craft repeatedly in the same field—the amount of practical problem solving insights you gain become invaluable and extremely difficult to compete with. You can’t knock off insight and intelligence.
Creatives do face inner challenges as they contemplate the business path of specialization—but when you do boldly purse PinPoint Positioning—you won’t face nearly as many outward challengers. And your clients won’t quickly hop over to another up and comer—you’ll be too highly valued for them to jump to a cheaper alternative.
You are the sole investor in your creative business. It’s in your interest to make sure your business has something proprietary, something distinct to offer. You can’t get a patent. But if you focus your experience you’ll get something even better.
Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.