Don't Just Be "Different" - What It Really Takes to Consistently Exceed Their Expectations

different better than better

In 2006, two Boston-based entrepreneurs named Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz launched a video software platform called Wistia. Over the next 12 years, they created some of the business world's most entertaining videos. In the words of Savage, their CEO, they take "emotional risks." As a result, their work stands out as a beloved exception in B2B. They feel like a breath of fresh air compared to most business content.

I've been a fan and follower of Wistia's since 2008, when I moved to Boston for my first job in tech, working as a digital media strategist at Google. Over time, I grew disillusioned with big company life, and I craved a path that would let me create for a living, rather than advise and sell as I did for the Big G. Looking around my own city, I took solace in the fact that Wistia was (A) a B2B business that (B) created lots of content about business topics and (C) embraced creativity and emotional risk-taking.

Over time, I got to know Wistia's people, and as my relationship deepened with them, I noticed two things that they did better than most. These two things are why I'm writing this today, and they lead us to our next big adventure together on my newsletter and on my podcast. Who knows? Maybe there's a book in here. There's definitely a speech. Regardless, here are the two things Wistia does better than most:

First, Wistia's videos have a certain consistency to them. They've created a unique identity thanks to a number of traits that, after watching just a few videos, become readily identifiable as "Wistian." They have a peppy, quirky tone, with a production style to match, a recurring cast of "characters" (employees on camera), and a propensity for quick-cut asides and jokes. White label a Wistia video, and you'd still know it was them. They know what works for their brand.

However.

Despite knowing "what works," and using that consistently, Wistia also proactively and consistently changes their work over time. They don't rely on the tried-and-true, beating it to death as so many teams do. Likewise, when they try something new, they don't merely glom onto the latest trend to evolve. While every corporation claims they want Hashtag Innovation, most of them treat change like they're buying a new Maserati: It has to be big, bold, and expensive, or it apparently doesn't count. Of course, then what happens? They hit the gas and careen wildly down the road. They have no idea what they're actually doing as they prioritize a trend or tactic without any real strategy. They aren’t driving change so much as the change is driving them. They’re reactive. They’re not in control.

With Wistia, it's different. Despite the stress and the fun of growing a young tech company, Wistia's changes still feel proactive, not reactive. "Someone screamed something from a stage? Who cares? What should WE do?"

Wistia doesn't let the change drive them. They indeed drive the change, both internally and, really, around the industry as a whole. Instead of careening wildly down the street, unable to control the horsepower of their Hashtag Innovation, they eaaaase onto the driver's seat. (Oooh, that feels nice.) They leeeean back as they start the engine. (Oh my, just listen to that puppy.) And they go cruuuisin' down the street. (Mmmm, yeah.) 

They seem to know what to change and what to keep. They make proactive changes over time, too, which keeps us engaged over time. Yes, I know roughly what to expect from them -- but not exactly what to expect. And that's exactly why I'm still a huge fan 10 years after discovering them. They continually change the right stuff about their work in order to exceed my expectations every time.

How?

Wistia isn't alone, either. I just wrapped up Season 1 of Exceptions, a 10-part docuseries about the world's most creative B2B brands. Each of them are breaths of fresh air in their niches: InVision (in the design industry), Gusto (payroll/benefits/HR), Help Scout (customer support), Lessonly (employee learning and development), First Round Capital (VC), Zoom (video conferencing), Grado Labs (my B2C example among the bunch, in consumer electronics), Buffer (social media marketing), ProfitWell (SaaS analytics), and yes, Wistia (video creation and analytics).

All 10 brands seem to do the impossible in today's noisy, conventional wisdom-filled world:

They avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations. 

What does that take to achieve? How can we do that too? I can’t shake this burning desire to know.

Welcome to Our Next Journey Together

In my first book, Break the Wheel, published in October, we completed the first leg of our journey together. We explored how to escape the endless cycle of best practices, conventional thinking, and trendy new tactics to do our best work. After two-and-a-half years of asking questions and looking for answers through story, we pushed ourselves away from conventional thinking. But now that we've done so, the big question becomes: How do we keep pushing? 

How do we avoid lapsing back into that endless cycle of best practices and commodity work Once we've raised our audience's expectations for what they can expect from us, making "exceptional" our new status quo, how can we continue to set the bar ever higher in their minds? If we could do that, we'd become the welcome exceptions in our niche, much like Wistia, and those other 9 brands, and about 50 other examples of work from all shapes and sizes that I've already gathered. All of these examples can be described with one powerful but under-explored word:

Refreshing.

Yup. They’re refreshing. Not "different." Refreshing. It’s a subtle difference but, as these things so often go, it makes all the difference in the world.

The Conventional Advice

The usual advice for standing out among all the noise is to be different. At first glance, it seems like this is the answer to my questions above. Want to avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations? Be different.  

Rather than try to win on competency -- slight incremental benefits that the competition lacks -- we strive to win on originality. Don’t be “yet another.” Be the only. Want word-of-mouth? Give them something remarkable, or worth remarking about. As I said in my book, if we want to be exceptional, we need to find and follow what makes us an exception.

However. 

I can't shake this feeling that maybe, just maybe, that idea doesn’t tell the full story.

In fact, recently, that sneaking suspicion leapt out from where it was hiding to reveal itself more fully to me. (Ew.) It pointed a gnarled and calloused finger my way and said, “HEY! You're one of those people who says things for a living! So if you want to continue this work you do, then answer me these questions two!”

  1. Isn’t the goal to be different and good, not just different? (Obviously, the goal isn’t to just pull stunts or try a bunch of gimmicks. We aren't rebels without a cause. We very much have one, or even several. We want to do work that others actually love. We need a more nuanced view here. We need the right MENTALITY. )

  2. What does that take anyway? (Obviously, we can’t just throw out everything we do and replace it with entirely new stuff. So how do we evolve with a purpose? How do we recognize when something is stale and needs to change? What do we change, and what do we keep? Clearly, we need a STRATEGY.)

A mentality and a strategy -- sounds like "nuance" to me. And nuance is one of those pesky but important things that requires genuine exploration and deep work to understand. As always, there is no One Simple Secret. So we better start our exploration.

The Problem with Aiming for "Different"

This idea that we should be “different” rather than compete on competency is far from new, but it was immortalized by the great thinker and speaker Sally Hogshead in 2015. In an article on her blog, she codified the idea into the pithiest and most memorable (and powerful) of phrases:

Different is better than better.

She writes:

We grew up with a myth. The myth says: Work hard to be “better.” Better than everyone else. Better than the other students in our classroom. In your career, be better than our competition… because that’s how to be the best. I’d like to end this myth right here. Your competitive advantage is NOT the way in which you are incrementally better than the competition.

She goes on to describe the benefits of competing not on price or efficacy of our product or fancier new marketing or technology, but by identifying and deploying our unique advantages.

"Different is better than better."

Be still, my beating heart. I feel like I can sprint through a wall just hearing that, don’t you? I think, “HELLZ TO THE YEAH! I’m gonna be different! I’m gonna do things MY way! I see you, Frank Sinatra! In fact, I’m so excited, I don’t even care that I just used the phrase HELLZ TO THE YEAH in public! Let’s do this thang! WOOOO!!!!”

However.

Then those questions creep in.

How are we different?

Also, are we different enough?

Also, are we different in some absolute, final sense, or must we keep finding different ways to be different over time?

Also, is our different a different that others really want?

Also, how do we achieve THAT?

Also…

Gah!

It’s hard for me to admit, and it may even border on controversial (settle down), but maybe being different isn't really the goal. In fact, without those pesky, nuanced things — the right mentality and the right strategy — we our thinking might be incomplete and dangerous.

It's incomplete because the goal is indeed to be welcome, not merely unconventional. Our work has to, yanno ... work. I could deliver my keynote speeches with my back turned to the audience for an hour. I'd be different. I’d also be terrible.

Unfortunately, saying "different-and-welcome is better than better" isn't all that tweetable. Still, I think a vastly underrated skill when crafting a career or company is knowing what to change and what to keep as we evolve our way forward. That’s how we can consistently create something different and avoid the real enemy in this exploration: stagnation.

Next, aiming to be “different” might actually be dangerous too. When we want to be different, we’re forced to answer one implied question that informs all our actions: "Different from whom?" Answer: The competition. But that’s never where we should start or focus our efforts. That’s a reactive, incremental way to craft our careers and companies. At best, that approach leads us to achieve what Sally Hogshead calls “a flimsy advantage that can be toppled in a millisecond by someone with a bigger following.”

What If We Focused on Being Refreshing Instead?

What if we found a smart, strategic way to continually refresh our work? What if we focused on feeling refreshing, not different?

Aiming to be refreshing, like aiming to be different, forces us to answer an implied questoin. However, this question focuses the work on something better than the competition. Rather than ask, “Different from whom?” we must ask, “Refreshing TO whom?” Answer: The customer. The audience. The client. The team. The community. The people we aim to serve.

Because that’s the real goal.

So, how can we refresh our work over time? What does it take to avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations? How can we ensure our work is embraced and beloved, not just once, but always, over time, in ways that resonate in such a deep way that they consider it refreshing?

As you can imagine, I've got some ideas for how this works. Mostly, I've got questions, and I’m starting a public journey to find some answers right now, with you.

So I hope you'll join me along this journey. Because while we all want to do exceptional work, it's simply not sufficient to break from conventional thinking once. We have to routinely identify stale patterns and evolve our way beyond them. Sometimes, that means making incremental changes, remixing our work.

Other times, that requires reinvention. Recently, that's exactly what Wistia did.

After 12 years of making the marketing world’s most beloved short-form videos, the team created a four-part documentary series, One, Ten, One Hundred, exploring the relationship between money and creativity. (Full disclosure: I was honored to be a consultant on this project.) The decision to reinvent their content followed a decision to reinvent the entire business, as Wistia had previously launched a new product, a Chrome extension to help you make beautiful video quickly called Soapbox.

Wistia continues to refresh their work. I think we should too. So let's journey together to uncover the subtle but powerful art of knowing what to tweak and what to keep as we evolve. Let's strive to be the beloved exceptions in our space. Let's avoid stagnation and consistently exceed their expectations. If we do, we might hear just about the best damn compliment to our work we can receive from others:

"THAT is how EVERYONE should do this."

How refreshing. 

JOIN THE JOURNEY: 2 ways to follow along with each question, story, insight, and behind-the-scenes content:

  1. Read and respond to my weekly emails. I'd love your thoughts, questions, and stories you think I should explore. I read and reply to every email I get. Subscribe below.

  2. Listen to my podcast, Unthinkable, for featured stories, plus a special behind-the-scenes miniseries called Creative Cafe, where I talk to some of the world’s best at continually refreshing their work (including Wistia's creative director!). Both types of episodes are coming in 2019. Subscribe free on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercast, and anywhere you listen.

Posted on December 17, 2018 .