When I graduated from journalism school, and started to look for jobs, I had to do two things during interviews. First I had to convince employers that I understood the basics of the business — the deadlines, the ethics, the requirements of being a reporter.

But I also had to give them the sense I was different than other applicants, that I stood out from the pack. I wanted them to believe that I’d work harder and deliver better work than anyone else.

It’s a conundrum that faces everyone trying to get head in the world of business, from recent graduates, to those moving up the ladder, to entrepreneurs of every stripe: how to stand out, while also making it clear you fit in.

Delicate balance

I was reminded of this challenging principle recently by Brock University professor Maxim Voronov. He set out on a six-year study of Ontario’s wine industry, and concluded that this balancing act is the main difficulty vintners face.

"On the one hand you try to demonstrate to consumers that you’re playing by all the norms and complying with all the standards," explains Voronov. "And at the same time, also trying to figure out a niche that will appeal to consumers."

Isn’t that always the way? Any venture, small or large, has to prove it’s following the rules of its industry. But it seems to me that’s the easier part.

Rules by their very nature are defined, and their demands are clear. Identifying the unique reason that makes you, or your product or service the ideal choice for clients? That demands both creativity and strategy.

Sure enough, Voronov found that it’s the standing out part of the success equation where Canadian wine-makers struggle. He looked at 25 wineries of various sizes, speaking to restaurateurs, critics, trade groups, and liquor board representatives, while also talking to the wine-makers themselves.

Canada’s wine industry has suffered from a "stigma," he says, a holdover from the days when we were known for sweet, fortified, low quality wines. "We didn’t find as much evidence as we expected of wineries really trying to stand out and demonstrate that they’re being rule breakers, path breakers," he says. "They’re more focused on compliance than on distinctiveness."

Differentiate yourself

Charmaine Denton is in a completely different type of business: time management. But Denton also understands the dilemma. She runs Take Back My Time, a personal time management service. 

Her clients include Olympian Donovan Bailey, who coincidentally was born in the same Jaimaican town as she was. "I started out as a virtual assistant 20 years ago," says Denton, using the term given to self-employed administration assistants who typically work from a home office, dealing with their client via phone calls and e-mail.

"I called myself an outsourced assistant — V.A.s weren’t even in Canada at that point. I thought I was brilliant that I came up with this idea!" (She later realized there was already a term for ‘her’ innovation.)

Initially Denton was able to excel at both sides of the success equation: with years of experience at consulting firm Accenture, she clearly understood business and could fit in. She also stood out, because she was one of the first to offer ‘virtual’ services.

Specialization needed

But as competitors came along, she realized she needed another level of specialization, in order to keep standing out. She found it by tapping into a new motive for clients to need an assistant. "I really want people to not think of work as a means to an end. It’s what we’re talented at and what we enjoy," she says.

"But the real purpose is to spend time with your family or people you care about. So I’m here to help people take back their time so they can spend time on their passions."

She even changed her company name from Denton and Associates, to Take Back My Time, to reflect her new mission. "When I ask clients what’s on your desk that you’ve been meaning to get done and what can I do to help you be more efficient and productive — none of those topics are new," she explains. "But when I say I want you to be able to focus on your passion and what you enjoy. Then there’s an a-ha moment and they get it."

So how do you spread the message about how your venture stands out?

In Denton’s case, she’s used networking and word-of-mouth, both to find clients and promote how she’s different than other virtual assistance services. A limited budget for promotion is another thing that she and the wineries Maxim Voronov studied have in common.

"Most wineries in Ontario are small and don’t have budgets for mass advertising," says Voronov. "So it becomes website communication, newsletters and so on. The kind of customer experience they provide when they come and visit."

'The search for distinctness'

Denton also employed the ground-up philosophy Voronov recommends. "What is the positioning and what are the choices that need to be made from the vineyard all the way to production and the retail?" he asks, as an example of that thinking.

"The search for distinctness — it needs to apply to all aspects of the value chain. Not just the story that wineries tell people, but also what grapes are they going to focus on, how are they going to produce the wine and then also finally how to tell the story."

In other words, uniqueness begins with thinking carefully about your passion for your business, and how it makes you different.

And when I think back again to my early days as a journalist, I can see I applied this principle. My passion was story-telling, and that’s why I studied journalism. I highlighted this in my job interviews, and always wove a story into my conversations with employers.

Obviously, it worked.