What Makes You Stand Out? It May Not Be What You Think

A candid conversation with a 16-year-old entrepreneur.

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What makes you stand out? It may not be what you think.

This is a challenging subject that I recently discussed with a 16-year-old entrepreneur. He was convinced that a particular part of his story was unique and worthy of coverage in Entrepreneur magazine — but he didn’t realize that his “unique angle” was actually very common.

We all make that mistake — whether we’re trying to get press coverage, or relate to an audience, or stand out in our jobs, or create something people love, or cut through the noise for any other reason.

To identify what makes us special, we need to dig deeper — not just into who we are and what we do, but into who we’re trying to appeal to.

That’s why I asked the 16-year-old entrepreneur if I could share our exchange, in hopes of illuminating this problem for everyone. He agreed.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Meet Ben Cloud

What Makes You Stand Out? It May Not Be What You Think

Ben Cloud is the 16-year-old CEO and founder of Clouds Coffee, which he describes as “all 100% organic, hand-picked, and sustainably sourced.”

Ben emailed me in December, hoping to get coverage in Entrepreneur. He listed a few reasons why his story was worth covering, and the first was this: “I started working on my business at the age of 15.” He also stressed that he launched the business during the pandemic.

Now look, let me be clear: His accomplishments are awesome. His early entry into entrepreneurship will serve him well for the rest of his life. But for reasons I’ll explain soon, they just don’t make for an Entrepreneur story.

So I replied:

Hey Ben. Congratulations on starting a business at such a young age. I don’t see a story here for us, but wishing you the best as you continue to build Clouds Coffee.

Ben was persistent. He replied with more information about himself, and punctuated it with this:

There is a huge opportunity to share my story and inspire your viewers - how many times do you hear of a 16 year old that started his own business?

I receive literally hundreds of pitches a day, and don’t have the time to engage with everyone. But because Ben is 16, I wanted to offer some guidance.

So I replied:

In the interests of being helpful, I’ll give you a totally honest answer to your question: I hear from 16-year-olds who start businesses all the time. I get a similar email maybe once a week or two. Same goes for a wide variety of entrepreneurs, who highlight some demographic data that they think sets them apart but is in fact pretty common. It’s why I always advise entrepreneurs of every age: Whatever you think makes you stand apart, put that to the side and dig deeper!

This is the reason I’m sharing this story with you.

Ben understandably assumed that his youth made him unique — and within his community, I’m sure he is unique! But because I’m the guy that everyone pitches their business to, I see a pattern that most people don’t.

That pattern is important to know about, because it extends far beyond age. This isn't a teenager thing; it's an everyone thing. Adults routinely pitch me stuff that is nearly identical to what other people are doing, and they're talking about it in nearly identical ways. I also see people create or market products in ways that are undifferentiated, and try to appeal to customers in ways that are not unique, and all of them need to take a step back and ask themselves that very, very important question:

What really, really, really makes me stand out?

Hell, I'll admit: I struggle with it too.

Again, that's why I think Ben is a great case study for this. He's young, sure, but he's also an entrepreneur trying to figure out which assets help him stand out. It's why I engaged with him.

After I told Ben that I hear from teenagers all the time, he sent me three smart questions to examine the issue further. Here’s where we get into the real meat of the issue — and where I offer some context that I hope helped him (and you) think differently.

Ben’s three questions

Before you read this, I should say: I’m being straightforward with Ben here, because I believe that entrepreneurs deserve straightforward information — no matter their age. By this point, Ben and I had gone back and forth many times, and I could tell that he takes his business seriously and wants serious information. And again, he later gave me permission to share all this.

These questions are in response to me telling Ben that I hear from teenage entrepreneurs all the time, and that youth alone is often not a distinction for coverage.

Ben’s questions are in bold. My replies are in regular font.

- - -

  1. Are those teenage entrepreneurs that reach out to you actually RUNNING a business? Or, is it some lemonade stand type startup where it is just "messing around?" I have filed my business as a corporation, been able to scale real sales from real people, etc.

Yes, they are. And I've heard from teenagers with sales in the millions.

  1. Do they have an actual product or service that sets them apart? It's arguable that I'm no different because I sell "coffee". There are tons of coffee businesses. BUT, I am working on reinventing the coffee market as a whole. I sell specialty grade coffee (top 3% off coffee grown). It's all 100% organic, hand picked, sustainably sourced, etc etc. I also ship my coffee out the same day it's roasted. It's a completely different product than traditional Starbucks or Dunkin’.

Yes. Most, like you, are operating in crowded marketplaces and have a niche distinction. Sometimes it's a particular customer base they're serving; sometimes it's a differentiation of the product. For example, I've heard from teenagers in apparel, food/product delivery, and a wide variety of food products.

  1. Do they have a story behind their motivation? I never really shared this because I didn't think that it was necessary, but in middle school I was the typical "bad kid". I had failing grades, was hanging out with the wrong people, etc etc. I got kicked out of public school and attended a private school for 8-9 grade. I turned myself around and was able to create something great.

Yes, they all have compelling personal stories. At this point, I don't think it's lost on anyone that a brand must have a story, and young people in particular lean heavily into that.

Media doesn't operate like a reward system, and it isn't determining who's worthy of coverage or not. Instead, each publication is serving a specific audience, and is looking for things in the world that will help serve that mission. In the case of Entrepreneur, our jobs here are to gather insights that tactically serve a wide range of entrepreneurs. Here is a response to pitch inquiries that I share so often, I literally just copy and paste it from a sticky note on my desktop: "I never care about what a company does, what its products are, who its founders are, or what its success metrics are. We're really driven by specific insights about counterintuitive decisions that entrepreneurs made to solve problems inside of their business, which are relatable to people in a broad range of industries."

The mission of Entrepreneur, in other words, isn't to cover entrepreneurs. It is to serve entrepreneurs. And the honest truth is that not everyone's story actively contains insights that are valuable to others. Sometimes they just haven't reached that point in their journey yet.

This is also why I'm never interested in what companies say they're trying to do, in the way that you said, "I am working on reinventing the coffee market as a whole." I'm interested in tactics that are proven out, so that other entrepreneurs can learn from them. That means I generally want to look backwards at what someone already did to grow their business, rather than forwards at what someone aspires to do.

But that's just Entrepreneur — and also, frankly, it's just me. If you spend long enough on our site, you might indeed find some random story of some other teenager and their business. Why was it written? Probably because the individual writer happened to find it interesting, and suspected some percentage of readers would too. That's also the nature of a media business; it's staffed by individuals who have a lot of autonomy. But you're pitching the editor in chief, and I filter everything through the overall mission of the brand. Other publications have different missions. It seems like you've gotten some local press — that makes tons of sense. The mission of a local publication is to give its readership a sense of what's happening in their community, and a story like yours fits well into that mission.

Here's the most important thing you wrote me: "I am only working on doing everything possible to grow my brand." As you should! But you should know that getting press is NOT generally transformative, and is often a pretty inefficient way to grow a business. Very visible stories can lead to a brief spike in business, but real growth happens through community- and brand-building. My best business advice to you is to spend less energy chasing press, and put that energy towards more direct engagement with current and future customers. That'll pay off in the long run so much more than any individual piece of press will.

Good luck.

- - -

And that's the end of the email.

So, what’s the lesson in all of this?

First, do what Ben did: Ask good questions, and then ask follow-up questions.

But also, ask good questions of yourself. Then ask follow-up questions. “What makes me stand out?” is a really good question to ask — but it must be followed up with, “Does that really make me stand out? What if it doesn’t? Or what if it doesn’t resonate with the audience I’m trying to reach?”

The first answer is often not the best answer.

Thanks again to Ben for his good questions — and hey, if you’re looking for a new coffee brand, you can check his out.


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Cover credit: Getty Images / Peter Cade