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Differentiation Is The New Currency

Written by: Florence His, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

“Life is not a meaning; it’s an opportunity." – Dr. Sol Gordon.

When life presents us with an opportunity, we naturally create meaning for it. Such meaning is emblematic of our perceptions and beliefs about our own identity and the world around us at a given point in time; that´s Dr. Sol Gordon’s core message. His work also depicts how learning something new and serving others for the greater good is conducive to life-giving relationships, which, he contends, are the best antidotes to depression and suicide.[1]

What does this have to do with the topic of Differentiation in business, might you ask?… Well, we are a meaning-making species and differentiation is a direct by-product of our special aptitude to compare options since they each mean something different to us. Read on for insights about how thoughtful differentiation can position your business to compete and strive in a noisy, crowded and competitive market.

Recently, I have been revisiting the thematic of differentiation as most entrepreneurs and alternative asset managers I work with are obsessed with one question: how can we stand out in a fast-moving, noisy, competitive market and attract customers and investors? That’s when I started digging deep into the corners of my mind and soul.

Drawing on ancient Chinese wisdom, approximately 300 years ago, the principles contained in the "Thirty-Six Stratagems" and the "Art of War"[2] have been widely adopted to the field of business by modern branding and strategy practitioners to assist companies in differentiating their market positioning, stand out from the competition and succeed.

This school of thought materialized through processes that generally guide companies to identify their unique strengths as well as their customers’ needs, elaborate aggressive strategies to win market share, and beat competition. In recent years, however, practices have evolved to embrace more innovative and inclusive stakeholders’ approaches to creating differentiation and value.

Kaihan Krippendorff [3] is the creator of The Fourth Option approach, a strategic methodology that teaches executives and businesses how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. In particular, he identifies mental patterns applied by great military strategists and advises modern breakthrough companies on how to implement those strategies and succeed.

The framework developed is worth taking a close look at since it is particularly effective in periods of high volatility and change. Amid economic turmoil and a global pandemic is prime time to discover how it works.

The Fourth Option metaphor hinges on the number three, the number at which most people stop looking for additional options. It’s the moment that separates thinkers from out-thinkers. Implementing the Fourth Option means using a strategy that’s not one of the accepted and predictable first three approaches. The option chosen is one the competition doesn’t consider or expect (the surprise element is key), so they can’t anticipate or respond to the outcome.

Out-thinkers are defined as those who “out-think” rather than outspend their competition. Out-thinkers are the leaders who will embrace new concepts to drive their organization on a path toward astounding, sustainable growth. But how can you become an out-thinker and generate that Fourth Option?

There’s a 5-step blueprint (I.D.E.A.S) for finding those innovative strategies that will open the realm of possibility :

  1. Look ahead to Imagine the future

  2. Look beyond the obvious to Dissect your business model

  3. Generate ideas to Expand your strategic options

  4. Spend time with your ideas to Analyze and Choose your options

  5. Build a plan to Sell your strategy (stakeholders alignment)

Step 3: Pattern recognition ability is a key element in formulating a strategy. Research shows master chess players recognize twice as many patterns as expert players, and grandmasters see 10 times as many. Master players win games because they see more patterns than their opponents.

Step 4:

  • Guy Kawasaki’s insights on how to pick winning strategies (drown from the Art of Rainmaking) he expresses as: “Let a 100 flowers blossom”. This means you sow many seeds, see what takes root, and harvest what blooms. Above all, you need to remain unattached to the options you chose and monitor their evolution. Companies are often surprised how unintended customers show up or how intended customers use their products but in unintended ways.

  • Selecting your Fourth Option: the innovative strategy that no one expects is likely to be in the high-difficulty, high-impact square of the grid. Don’t be afraid to focus on that idea that seems impossible. It’s the idea you initially might want to laugh at, just as your competitors will. Sit with that crazy idea. Overcome objections to it (find ways to remove barriers to implementation). Your winning moves will appear, and with them, your Fourth Option will take form.

For more details about the framework, how to implement it, and the free “36 Stratagems Cheat Sheet”, please visit:

Mark Levy’s [4] inspiring work on Differentiation and how to surface a “Big Sexy Idea”,

I consider foundational. The Big Sexy Idea is that differentiating idea (concept) at the fore of your business that defines what you stand for. It’s the single, strongest idea you are going to lead with, communicate clearly from and contribute to the world through.

According to Mark’s work, differentiation stems from how we create (new) meaning and are able to perceive a truth that nobody (yet) does. His work is grounded in existentialism principles, and he readily quotes Dr. Sol Gordon. But how can you surface this differentiator?

It’s all about asking the right questions.

Mark generously shares how he guides his clients through engaging conversations and a framework that involves a variety of explorative questions touching on usual and unusual topics:

What do you know (ideas, insights, stories…) that nobody else does or that 80% of the people don’t know about in your field or that they know but did not think to say or articulate ?. What are your products/services based on, how do they function that the market the audience does not know of?

Why starting with you is essential: while it is important to survey the marketplace, doing so too early won’t lead to a truly differentiated position. The market has its own goals and can only respond based on what it already knows as a standard. The journey really needs to start from within, with a solid vision for what you want to make happen in the world.

What are the stereotypes, stories your industry and its products or services are known for (pre-conceived notions about your marketplace)? What’s obvious about your business/industry? What do people expect to hear you say that they have already heard of/already know?

Top-of-mind knowledge is commoditized and not edgy hence not differentiating but needs to be surfaced before moving to the next question.

What is(are) the stereotype(s) you defeat that will make you stand out. What is surprising and delightful about your product or service that defeats expectations?

Once you know what is obvious, you can answer this question to sparkle novel ideas.

The element of surprise is necessary because you need to disrupt a set way of meaning-making in the mind of your audience and deliver a positioning message that is different from what they have heard so far. Hint: If you only tell them or give them what they expect, they have no reason to listen to you.

What is a spot in the market that is unoccupied?

If you don’t have unlimited resources, it’s best to pick a narrow-yet-important unoccupied position in which you can dominate

What is your origin story, the one leading to your “Big Sexy Idea”?

People are looking for congruence and expertise; they want to know that you are “an apple tree giving apples”, not oranges or any other product that’s in style or expedient at the moment. They want to know and feel that you are doing what you were meant to do in the world, and when you do, your presence and your work will encourage them to find the work they are meant to be doing.

Mark’s methods include using Free Writing Techniques to allow the clients he works with to break free of their own entrenched ways of thinking and divert them from their usual thinking patterns to allow the true gems of differentiation to emerge.

His clients are encouraged to journal regularly about all kinds of thoughts, experiences (trips and non-business related experiences are valuable), and ideas and write them down faster than their own mind’s internal editor can ring-fence them in order to have them cycle through a great variety of ideas uninterruptedly, bypass their internal-editor and find the one idea that will work for them, might be the 27th, the 40th… as he says, the mind is not a precision instrument. This process, he goes on explaining, is meant to disrupt his clients’ mind patterns that would otherwise keep them inside their comfort zone, stuck in the realm of conventional, safe ideas (that have proved to work for them so far) and prevent them from accessing what lives at the edges and others cannot see.

An important aspect of his work is its intentional evolutionary bias. A “Big Sexy Idea” or “differentiator” is considered as a “foot in the door,” which is relevant at a specific moment and allows to launch and break through the walls of invisibility. It is merely the initial positioning that can put your business on the map, get you known as the go-to solution provider in the industry. However, a “Big Sexy Idea” is not a fixed concept and is not meant to encompass the whole of someone’s personality or life, nor is it built around someone’s passion.

On the contrary, it is about a specific and time-sensitive position that’s emblematic of an opportunity in the field of possibilities and which you can lead with. “Big Sexy Ideas” are like thrusters on a Rocketship, Mark says. They are meant to drop away and burn up in time (and must be let go of) so that the Rocketship can continue its trajectory. Any business was an idea to start with, an idea that got legs (or thrusters to boost it to outer space). A differentiator needs to evolve over time to remain relevant as markets move, changes happen, and timely adaptation is essential.

Finally, Mark emphasizes that he engages with every person as a portal of possibilities because most opportunities are hidden. His work is really to facilitate the unleashing of that potential and support the growth involved with every person’s developmental journey.

Rory Vaden’s work on personal branding and how to differentiate is very insightful. Rory is the co-founder of Brand Builders Group, a firm that helps clients identify their voices, tell their stories, and share their unique messages [5].

Being the best-kept secret is a tragedy for any business’s livelihood. A business lives and dies by its reputation and reach, and both precede revenue, he says.

In a recent episode of the Elevate Podcast hosted by Robert Glazer, Rory Vaden expressed this dynamic as a formula: Revenue = Reputation x Reach.

Listen to the podcast here:

The podcast notes’ highlights include :

  • For business owners, few things are more frustrating than seeing a competitor who offers an inferior product or service get far more attention through superior marketing. But the fact is reach and marketing matter. People and businesses need to embrace this reality to stand out and get ahead.

  • For a business to grow revenue, it must be both excellent at what it does (reputation) and have a large audience of people who know about it (reach). To the frustration of many, reach is likely the more impactful part of the above equation.

  • While many leaders are focused on quality and ideally want both reputation and reach, a business with a great reputation and a poor reach is likely to have fewer customers than a business with a poor reputation and great reach.

  • These are the major reasons why personal branding exploded in relevance in the past decade. Technology and social media have democratized the process of gaining reach, even for people and companies without deep pockets. Personal branding helps spread your reputation either within your company’s walls or in your industry where you’re looking to build awareness and relevance.

As we at are beta-launching both an assessment tool (scorecard) [6] for alternative asset managers to evaluate where they stand on the fundraising readiness value-cycle and a 90-day online program [7] aimed at preparing them for Effective, Drama-Free Fundraising; creating this piece, we believe, participates to our educational mission towards the entrepreneurial and alternative asset management community we serve; by providing more insights around how a thoughtful differentiated positioning, a strong reputation/brand and an amplified reach participate to the success of any business initiative, irrespective of its industry.

Follow me on LinkedIn, Instagram and visit my website for more info!


Florence His, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Florence leads Business4People, an advisory, marketing, coaching, and investor relations platform she founded in Paris (FR) to support Mission-Driven Founders and Impact Investors internationally.

She serves as Director of Marketing and Head of Impact Investment at Crito Capital, a boutique Placement Agent headquartered in New York with a presence in London and focused on providing advice and capital raising services to small/mid-cap Private Fund Managers and Companies in the US, Europe, and Emerging Markets. Finally, she is also active as a Mentor and Global Partner at the Entrepreneurs Institute on their GeniusU online education platform.

Florence spent over 17 years in the investment, private equity, M&A, and risk management functional disciplines leading multi-disciplinary teams before embracing the entrepreneurial path.

She holds an undergraduate degree in organizational psychology from Yale University, an MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business Administration, a Masters's degree in Sustainable Studies from the International Institute of Management in Paris, and speaks six languages.



[1] Dr. Sol Gordon is a clinical psychologist, author, and lecturer on relationships.

[2] Books about strategies used in politics, war, civilian life to strategically stand out and prevail

[3] For more information about Kaihan’s work, please visit:

[4] Mark Levy is the author of The Accidental Genius – Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content. More about his work at

His Free PDF: “List-Making as a Tool of Thought Leadership” here

[5] Rory is also the New York Times bestselling author of Take The Stairs and is a world-class speaker who has competed in the World Championship of Public Speaking. Rory also has a TEDx Talk, How to Multiply Time, which has been viewed over 3 million times

[6] Take the Assessment here

[7] Find out more about the 90-day Mastering Fundraising Essentials program here



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