Learning How to Swim in the Red Ocean

Be Uber. Be AirBNB. Be Facebook. Be a disruptive force and create a scenario and create a scenario where there is no competition, where you are a category of one.

At worst, be a big player in a class with very few competitors. The idea here is termed a Blue Ocean Strategy, and it is mighty for the fortunate few who have uncontested market spaces. The rest of us have to learn to live, thrive, and survive in the Red Ocean.

Welcome to the Red Ocean

The Red Ocean is everything the Blue Ocean is not. It is crowded with aggressive competitors.

There is little—or in many cases—no real differentiation. You are one of many, all of you fighting to survive, some growing quite large, while others have to content themselves with the small scraps that float towards the bottom. Even the bottom feeders are aggressive in the Red Ocean.

What makes the ocean red is the blood of the combatants who continuously work to take clients from their competitors while their competitors return in kind. Sometimes the blood is yours, and sometimes it is your competition’s, the water always being stained with blood. Competition turns the ocean bloody.

If you grow up in the Red Ocean, none of this bothers you in the slightest. It’s all you have ever known, and you know how to navigate the water. You have never seen the Blue Ocean.

On Your Wits Alone

Learning to live in the Red Ocean requires you to live on your wits and pluck alone. Those who are dull, boring, and don’t have their wits about them, struggle to survive in the crimson waters.

You cannot rely on your company’s history, different as it may be, and as compelling a story as you might tell. Everyone has a story, and yours isn’t enough to provide a competitive advantage.

Neither is your “why,” the reason you are who you are. To your dream clients, your “why” is quaint, and maybe even a little sad. In this part of the ocean, you need to be smart to be helpful, useful, worth knowing.

In some faraway sea on the other side of the markets, some salespeople and sales organizations have compelling, differentiated value capable of creating a competitive advantage all by itself. In the dark part of the ocean, your product, service, or solution looks a lot like your competitors, and any attempt to differentiate using a gimmick will have you laughed out of a meeting.

What you are left with is your wits. You have to be smarter, the kind of smart that one only gains by figuring out how to live in a hostel environment, one in which everyone is trying to eat your lunch, if you’ll forgive me for using that term. You need to know how to operate, how to move. You need to be savvy, experienced.

Courage and Determination

You cannot want things to be easier. Wishing and hoping will only bring you disappointment. Where the water is deep and dark, you need pluck, “spirited courage and determination.”

There are larger and seemingly stronger players, all of whom will use their size to try to take what is yours. Most of the bigger animals are slow, over-confident, and feel a sense of entitlement that makes them weaker than they appear. These predators are a collection of predators, mostly cobbled together through acquisitions. They lack heart, and they are no significant threat to those with the wits and courage to take them on.

You find more danger from the small and mid-sized predators who are fast, nimble, fearless, and smart. The real threat is the competition who has the business acumen, situational knowledge, quick rapport skills, and the chops to win a contest against the best who live under the scarlet waves.

Learning to Swim

There is a particular advantage that accrues to those who learn to sell a commodity or something that many perceive to be a commodity. Because there is so little meaningful differentiation, you must become the value proposition yourself as a competitive strategy. You must  learn a sales approach that creates an advantage for you, one that creates a preference to buy from you, even though your price is eight-percent higher than your competition.

Most of us live in highly competitive, overcrowded, and commoditized markets. Those of us who live here don’t worry about competition, as it has been with us every day of our lives in sales. The competition is what taught us how to win, even if we learned it the way Steven Tyler shared it, “I know it’s everybody’s sin, you got to lose to know how to win.”

If you are going to live, thrive, and survive in the Red Ocean, it helps to have wits, pluck, and a giant mouthful of sharp teeth to beat the competition.

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