In May, TinyOwl closed its doors to most of the world. After raising more than $27 million, the India-based restaurant delivery service discontinued its service to all but a few areas in Mumbai.
The problem? The high cost of logistics was partly to blame, but oversaturation had had the greatest impact. Over the previous three years, more than 400 restaurant delivery services had set up shop in India alone.
Initially, the delivery service trend helped legitimize TinyOwl, but the startup needed to do more than follow the herd to make a real go of running a successful company long term.
When your own business is just starting out is not the time to define an entire category yourself, no matter how unique you consider your business. You have to work to predict trends that will help you evolve in what you do and how you represent what you do to consumers, in a relevant way.
Finding the pulse
At Cultivate Labs, our efforts started in the most simplistic of ways: Google Alerts.
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We set up a series of alerts for keywords related to our business. Whenever someone wrote a pertinent article, we reached out to the author to see whether he or she was willing to have a conversation. That 30-minute discussion could reveal what kinds of things that person was seeing in the marketplace, and the practice sometimes either generated a lead or led us to another valuable connection.
Next, we broadened our reach, with some basic academic research. We looked at what was going on in our space, where grants were being issued, etc. When you start to hear discussions on the same topics over and over again, you get an idea of where the industry is headed.
Of course, keywords and research take you only so far. You need to start applying them to your business if you want to see results. This process manifests itself in several ways:
1. Identify your brand's vision.
Early in our business, we made the mistake of stressing only functions and features. Our focus was on the technical aspects of what we do, which didn't resonate with consumers. Although those aspects remained a part of our messaging, they became secondary to our company vision.
We want to inspire people to see what they could become if they used our products. It wasn't until we understood the latest trends that we were able to communicate that vision to others, in a relevant, customer-friendly light.
To get to that point, we went through the famous Ogilvy exercise, "the big ideaL," in which you determine how your brand can address something that needs changing, once it's the best version of itself. The big ideaL provides a greater purpose to your brand. Use this purpose at your own company to help you understand where you want to go.
What's changing in people's reactions to trends may well be the rationale for why someone may begin using your product or service; but the vision of it has to be consistent.
2. Stay hungry for knowledge.
Your messaging is never gospel, and you're never done learning. According to Gallup, almost three-quarters of American adults who had at least a four-year college degree and participated in a survey said that they believed they learned something new on a daily basis.
So, stay up to date on what's going on in your own industry, and use those insights to fit your messaging and sales materials into the greater discussion. Of course, stick to the core vision or mission for your business, but remain agile enough to be a part of the conversation. Otherwise, you risk being left behind and missing out on the opportunities enjoyed by your competition.
Related: Why You Should Strive to Be a Lifelong Learner
3. Get some context.
Context is critical. Watch how real people use or interact with your products or services, then look for ways to describe that experience to others. It will help anchor people's thinking about your brand, allowing them to better relate.
Take Basecamp, for example. That company is excellent at providing context to potential users, constantly highlighting how people use its product — even though the product constantly evolves.
4. Know thy KPIs.
According to Gartner research, 71 percent of leaders surveyed said they understood that key performance indicators (KPIs) are tied to business success. Spend time establishing your ability to measure the effectiveness of your messaging. Are you seeing increased activity on your website? Are you seeing more inbound leads? What about social media attention?
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Identifying and measuring performance can help you make better decisions. It also takes the guesswork out of messaging, leading to improved communication, better execution and clearer expectations. And it puts you in a better position to react to trends.
When you're first starting out, let the big players do the heavy lifting, of widespread evangelization. Spend your time getting to know your purpose in the marketplace to carve out your niche. Then leverage it to grow.