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Differént?

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The idea launched on a Friday afternoon, when my school friend Roger and I visited a new construction site. There, a plumber kicked at metal — lead — droplets that lay on the ground and said a scrap yard would pay “considerably” for the bits and pieces. Like all 12-year-olds, we wanted to become rich. He said the S&S scrap metal yard was just across town. We quickly filled our bicycle baskets and pockets with the heavy metal.

To our friends, later, we announced our ingenious scrap metal business. We said we’d be riding new bicycles soon.

This was before the “green” movement, so scrap lead was plentiful. Plumbers sealed drainpipes with lead, and power-company linemen joined wires with lead-based solder. Both groups dripped excesses on the ground.

On Monday, the scrap dealer refused our metal. It held bits of dirt and gravel, he said, but offered that we could clean it by heating the metal globs until they melted and then skim the dirt off the top. He said we could melt lead on an ordinary cooking stove, in any pot.

Fascinated, Roger and I watched the rigid metal transmogrify into silvery fluid. We’d heated it on his mother’s gas range, in an old cooking pot, and, as instructed, we skimmed the dross. Next, we poured the hot liquid into a muffin pan, to both cool and mold it.

On Tuesday, we bicycled the heavy muffins to the scrap dealer. He tugged a fat money roll from his pocket and dealt out six, one-dollar bills. Basking in success, we bought Cokes and rode back to the construction site, for more lead.

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On Wednesday, we spilled a pot of boiling lead onto the kitchen stove.

On Friday, with a clunky lawnmower and two rakes, we announced our new, lawn-care service.

Perseverance.

 

A recent example of perseverance (and turbulence) is Harley Davidson’s® sales decline, and the ensuing closure of its Buell motorcycle division, and that Erik Buell has re-established his race business elsewhere. It’s a good case study because Harley exterminated Buell’s performance-bike division — a relatively new, youth-market expansion — so it could focus on its core market: cruiser motorcycles. Some analysts believe Harley erred in dumping Buell, because its core buyers’ demographic of older, established riders is dwindling. They say Harley should have kept the youth-oriented, performance-bike company as a future business track.

See it like a vinyl signshop creating a digital-print division, then killing it because overall sales fell, even when reports showed digital printing as the growing market.

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Harley’s 2009 revenues fell to $1.1 billion from $1.4 billion; its 2010 first-quarter, worldwide, retail sales of new Harley-Davidson motorcycles declined 18.2%. Analysts say recent cuts, including Buell, have brought the company back to profitability.

Harley acquired Buell — and its gifted chief engineer, Erik Buell — in 2003, in an attempt to attract younger, sports riders. Buell has built sweet performance bikes for track and street since ’83.

Buell’s motorcycle innovations included fuel storage in the framework and swing-arm, engine-oil reserves. Most interesting is his perimeter-mounted, front-disk brake, which, by design, lowered a wheel’s unsprung weight and, by position, relocated the mechanism’s untamed weight to the rim — which amplified the wheel’s centrifugal force as well as its gyroscopic stability.

Tom Barlow, a former American Motorcyclist Assn. executive, on Bloggingstocks.com, said a lack of acceptance by the company s dealer network and inadequate investment in brand building smothered Buell. Buell bikes have won numerous design honors, awards, races and championships around the world — including the 2009, AMA Pro Daytona SportBike championship. Thus, you’d think Harley, with its “old guy” image, would’ve kept and developed Buell for the upcoming, younger rider market, even if it did break a few rules.

Breaking rules is the theme of Youngme Moon’s new book — Different. She tells of outperforming your competition by not conforming to standard business-school methods. A Harvard Business School professor, Moon claims businesspeople see the world in bullet points and seldom realize that buyers are both unusual and unpredictable.

She said most consumers see businesses as a blur, but Goggle, Apple and Ikea, unlike Sears and JC Penney’s, stand out from the blur, because they’re different.

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Moon also cautions that businesses commonly — and self-defeatingly — align with their competition while, also, endeavoring to be different.
For example, any electric-sign company that once said it wouldn’t offer LED lamps, but now does, has neatly fitted itself into this box — especially if the addition was to align the shop with its competition.

At times, however, alignment is necessary, to remain competitive.

She said business leaders, because they compare their own brand’s performance to that of their competition, easily (and almost blindly) walk an uninspiring treadmill.

Moon believes differentiation makes a firm more recognizable, such as Buell s bikes did for Harley. Differentiation is also a critical barrier to the competition.

The same day that Moon’s book arrived, I ordered a copy of Gary Hamel’s Leading the Revolution from Strand Books in NYC. Hamel, a business consultant, writes, “Industry revolutionaries don’t tinker at the margins; they blow up old business models and create new ones.”

He said most companies quests for innovation result in new products, or features added to old ones, but seldom reveal true innovation. He tells of Nabisco’s “Double Stuf Oreo” cookie, a sugary scheme that doubled the filling in Oreo cookies. The idea and marketing campaign were successful, but only temporarily, because Hydrox and Newman brands can simply copy the feature.

No barrier to the competition.
Different isn’t easy for a signshop. Venture too far and your products don’t fit the customers’ needs — or, stay home and lose.

However, you can excel in numerous areas: exceptional designs, innovative materials, unique fabrication methods and, of course, recession-adjusted pricing. You could also incorporate value-added devices into your sales efforts, because you have free rein with such options. Meaning, you can truly be different and offer your sign buyers anything: Arthur Murray dance lessons, two years of free sign maintenance or, when the sign goes up, a pizza party for your customer’s staff.

Value-added devices are changeable. You can vary the offer for each customer, or on a whim. A further idea is to orchestrate value-added offerings through your other, sign-buying customers. 
 

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