Or thoughts on going against the grain.

When everybody thought the Internet was a toy, they pioneered e-commerce. When everybody was obsessing over quarterly results, they stuck to a five-year profitability plan business strategy. When everybody was going vertical, they went horizontal.

Yes, Amazon.com can teach us a lot about going against the grain. If you zig when the market zags, you’ll get noticed. More importantly, if you do it right, you may become very … zigcessful. 

Let’s take a quick look back. When Amazon opened shop in 1994, people scoffed. Few besides Jeff Bezos believed the firm had a sustainable business model, and it took several years for him to prove the critics wrong.

During the ‘00s, Amazon established itself as the world’s preeminent book retailer, online or offline. Although universally known by its innovative, user-friendly e-commerce site, Amazon was also building an impressive infrastructure behind the screens. It forged strong merchandising agreements with independent brick-and-mortar bookstores. It developed a massive, state-of-the-art warehousing and fulfillment infrastructure.

But just as Amazon was putting the finishing touches on its overpowering vertical integration, it zagged in a horizontal direction – selling everything from appliances to shoes to watches. At first, the public was left scratching its collective head – but now, the public is scratching and clawing to get its hands on Amazon stock.

So what can a small business learn from all this? 

  1. It takes guts to zig when the world zags.
  2. The world can be wrong.
  3. A zig strategy takes patience and persistence.
  4. A zig strategy takes x-ray vision: you have to see something right in front of you that nobody else can see.

From books to blades.

Amazon zigged and was successful; however, this IS a risky strategy. Consider the Dollar Shave Club. The company offers a month’s-worth of razor blades for as little as $3 a month. You heard me: $3 a month.

Now that’s a zig. A club based on razor blades. Buying razor blades on contract. A price so low you think it’s a gag instead of zag. With the world of retail razors revolving around technological innovation and big-time branding, here comes a company with a generic product, promising to take us back to a simpler time.

Does Dollar Shave Club have a chance? There are lots of reasons it could bomb: low price point, razor-thin margins, competition from established retailers, and poor product acceptance to name a few.

On the other hand, maybe all these “common sense” worries add up to nothing. Maybe they completely miss the big picture. Would they stop Jeff Bezos?

Not ready for a big zig? Try a small one. 

But say you’re not Jeff Bezos. That’s OK, you don’t have to give birth to a new business model to be an effective zigger. It’s possible to grab attention and market share with tactical zigs.

These are solid zigs. Chicago Cabbie capitalizes on the popularity of social media. The Tamale Guy operates on the principle that scarcity creates demand. Despair.com exploits our frustration with bureaucracy.

Any business, from environmental monitoring to packaging fulfillment, can capture a prospect’s attention by applying a zigzag maneuver. For example:

  • Zig understaffed retailers by giving customers a $1 discount for every minute they have to wait in a checkout line.
  • Zag unreliable home remodelers by running your business like a SWAT team.
  • Zig pretentious law firms by writing your website in plain English and wearing jeans around the office.
  • Zag touchy-feely consultants by talking turkey with clients. (Oops, I think Carol Roth already took this one.)

Ultimately, successful zigging means doing something about something people care about. Amazon figured out people would rather shop with a mouse in the house, and the Dollar Shave Club understands that paying an arm and a leg for razors is a slap in the face.

Over to you. 

Where is the opportunity to zig in your business? How can your company make a difference by refusing to believe that  “business as usual” means “business as inevitable”?