This selection comes from an early chapter of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help. If you like it, you will probably like the whole book. You can learn more and order it in the format of your choice (print, digital, Kindle) right here.
That which makes you unique makes you valuable
My biggest difficulty in Christmas shopping (other than trying to remember which Lego set the younger kid said was the really wonderful one, and which one was lame), is trying to find something that will be unique and valuable for the person who will get it.
To be sure, I don’t strive for that for everyone — the gift for Great Aunt Sophie doesn’t always get the same level of thought as others — but to the extent that I can, for the people who really matter to me, I am looking for something that is
- different from what they will get from anyone else,
- different from what they already have, and
- something that they will value.
So for my cool sister-in-law, I am looking for a funky necklace made out of natural materials. For my niece, I am looking for an outfit that captures her free spirit and will look great on her. For my kids… well, you know, we get a list, most of which is incomprehensible to me anyways. Nevermind.
But here’s the kicker: I will probably be willing to pay at least a little bit more for the perfect funky necklace or free-spirit outfit than I would for a typical string of beads or a boring t-shirt and pants.
And because that’s what I am looking for, I am also more likely to stray from the beaten path and go shopping somewhere other than Target.
The germ of the thought is this: That which makes a place unique makes it more valuable to the people who want it. And since we harp constantly on the need to win and retain Talent (the potential employees who have the skills we value), becoming valuable to at least some subset of that Talent matter more than ever. Talent will typically value your community more, care about it more, invest in it more, if the experience you offer differs in a valuable way from what they can get somewhere else.
A lot of times it’s easy to see our communities as commodities, like the plastic toys on a shelf in a big store. If I can get the same transforming thingamabob at Big Box A vs. Big Box B, then I will probably buy it where it’s cheapest. That’s the general retail Race to the Bottom — if there is nothing that makes your store different other than price, then you will win or lose based on how cheap you are. Any other factors go out the window.
But if you are the only store that carries the way cool thingamabob, then you not only win the sale, but you don’t have to charge the rock-bottom price, right?
It’s the same with our communities. If we regard them – and promote them – as commodities, then the only way that we attract new businesses or people – or keep the people and businesses that have the wherewithal to go elsewhere (typically, that’s our Talent) – is if we make ourselves the lowest-price option.
That is what economic development incentives were about in the first place – making the costs of a location lower, or at least even with, the competition.
Think about it: If my community sales pitch is that ” we are within 600 miles of 75% of the United States,” and hundreds of other communities can make the same claim, then what reason does any Talented entrepreneur or business operator have to come to my community – unless I am the cheapest?
And when I am no longer the cheapest, what reason do they have to stay?
Our communities’ ability to succeed long-term depends on our ability to capitalize on and communicate those features that make our community unique, and therefore valuable.
There are a lot of elements of any community that are nice but numbingly common – “we have a great work ethic,” “we have rail service,” etc. But it’s the unique elements – the ones that make your community different, the ones that cannot be replicated by someone else – that will make you more valuable to someone than anything incentive you can offer. If you are not playing to your uniqueness, then you are joining the Grand Caravan of Commodities on the Race to the Bottom.
A couple of important words of warning, though.
- First, what is unique and valuable to one person is a white elephant to another. If you establish yourself as something unique, you become like a gourmet cheese — people will either pay more for your one-of-a-kind taste and texture, or they will drop you back on the shelf when they get a whiff of you. If your downtown is renowned as the Victorian Antiques Capital of Your State, a lot of people would consider that a point in favor of moving there. I myself, on the other hand, will probably look somewhere else
- Second, fake uniqueness will hurt you worse in the long run than being a commodity. There’s a refrain/long Twitter hashtag that I’ll throw out in a later chapter: “#LookWhatYouCantGetAwayWithAnymore.” Trust me on that one for now.
- Third, remember that your community has many aspects that make it unique, and it is that entire package, not just one Claim to Fame, that Talent will be looking for. And different elements will appeal to different Talent groups. And that’s a good thing. Relying on one Talent group would be like relying on one industry to employ everyone in town. We should have learned by not that that’s not the most prudent idea.