Seth Godin's tiny book, The Dip, basically makes the same four points over and over.
- Something is only worth doing professionally if you can be the best in the world.
- Becoming the best in the world at something requires serious dedication and motivation to get through the inevitable "dip", which he defines as that difficult period between becoming proficient and becoming an expert.
- If you are not completely convinced you can get through the dip and become the best in your world, find a new world.
- Don't mistake a dip for a dead-end.
Godin argues it's much better to quit than to accept anything less than becoming the best. Obviously the premise is that everybody can become the best in the world at something worthwhile.
Seth Godin is hardly the only person who thinks this way. Just today, Keith Trivitt made a similar point for Business Insider, though his point was more about differentiating (also a frequent theme for Mr. Godin.)
Being the Best
Seth speaks of making your world smaller until you're the best in the world. However, is it true? Do you actually need to be the best or just very good? To me, it depends on what you do.
For companies that produce products or services at such a scale that they can fulfill any level of demand, this makes sense. However, for small agencies and other service providers that largely depend on man power, the aggregate demand is well in excess of what any individual firm can fulfill. So if your agency is "the best" in the world at search engine marketing, there is still only so much business you can take on at any given time. And if you try to take on too much, the quality of what you do suffers and you are no longer "the best".
If there are ten available good projects and you can only take on four of them, six other projects will go to firms that are not "the best". Presumably there are enough "very good" companies in your area to accommodate all demand (if not there is a heck of a business opportunity).
Narrowing Your World
Abstract Edge (my agency) has been contemplating this conventional wisdom for a long time. We have always had significant strength and talent in a number of different areas. We do a lot of things very well. But are we objectively "the best" at anything?
Actually, yes, if we define our world narrowly enough, there are things I feel confidently we do better than any other agency on the planet (like making really beautiful, sexy, highly-branded websites on the Plone CMS). Is that world too small though? What happens if you make your world so small and somebody better comes along? Does the small demand in that world suddenly go elsewhere? Then what happens to all of your investment?
The fact remains that the majority of opportunities we get have nothing to do with making beautiful Plone CMS websites. These opportunities take advantage of many of the things we do very well. Are we the best at them? In the entire world? Maybe, but it seems doubtful. I'm not sure that matters.
A Moment in Space and Time
If you're looking for a service provider, what is the cost to you of looking until you find the best one? Is the best one going to be too expensive? Is the best one not local, and having somebody local is important to you? How can we possibly agree on what constitutes "the best"?
So really, in a high-touch business like ours, it's not about being "the best in the world" per se but instead about being "the best match" for an individual case given a finite period of time to search.
Seth Godin is right, some of the time. But for a certain class of company, he is wrong.
The bottom line: differentiation is overrated (at least for high-touch service businesses), But you still need to be very good and make your customers happy to succeed.