Every great business has one – that thing that they do that is unique, special and different.


When I was a kid there was a place down the street that advertised all over that it was home to “the world’s greatest hamburger.” I thought it was an amazing thing that I lived so close to the best hamburger in the world. Lucky us! Later I realized that of course wasn’t the case, but they sure did have the best slogan in town.


Great businesses do something unique. Normally it’s more than a jingle; it could be a product or service or attitude or whatever, but it is something that sets them apart. It is sort of like that old McDonald’s jingle about the Big Mac:


Two all beef patties

Special sauce

Lettuce cheese, pickles, onions

On a sesame seed bun


Now, we really have no idea what the “special sauce” is made of, though one might guess that it’s ketchup and mayonnaise; that’s actually not the critical point. The critical point is that the Big Mac has a secret sauce.


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In business terms, secret sauce has become shorthand for that thing you do, have, and/or offer that is special.


Do you ever watch the show Shark Tank? If you do, you will notice that one thing that the sharks are always looking for is that distinctive angle - that secret sauce. Often it is the secret sauce that will compel one of them to jump on board, and it is the lack of a secret sauce that scares others away.


Andy Bechtolsheim knew that he had just witnessed a super-secret sauce in 1996 after he had been given a demonstration of Google. He wrote out a $100,000 on the spot to “Google, Inc.” Fun side note: Graduate students Sergy Brin and Larry Page were unable to deposit the check for several weeks because they had not yet incorporated and there was no “Google, Inc.”


When I share the secret sauce secret with small business people, they are oftentimes intimidated. They worry that they have to be like Google or McDonald’s or something. That is not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that if you want to get ahead, then it would serve you well to figure out what your secret sauce is and capitalize on it, that’s all.


What is it that you do – or could do – that is unique, different, and special?


Here in my town, there is no shortage of organic markets. But one of them has a tagline, “The friendliest store in town.” And heck if they aren’t. For us it’s a two-fer: We get great, fresh food there, and they are indeed quite nice about it (they’d better be with those prices!)


Given all of the competition in that arena, this market needed a niche. Instead of competing where they may not win (price, selection, or convenience), they changed the equation and compete in an area where they are strongest. Their “friendliness” is their secret sauce.


Similarly, there is a dentist here who calls herself, “the sedation dentist.” Of course all dentists now offer sedation dentistry, but for the chickens out there, her tagline denotes a secret sauce that they want.


So that is the lesson. Don’t play on someone else’s turf of location or lowest price or whatever. Play the game on your home field. Think about what it is that you do that is distinct and better and brand your business around that.


And if that means you need to tell people that you have the greatest hamburger in the world, then all the better.


About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

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