Small Business Lessons From Billion Dollar Brands

If you want to be like Ralph Lauren, you have to start by thinking like Ralph Lifshitz

Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Ralph Lauren: They all come to mind when we think of successful brands. These billion-dollar companies grow not just because their products are good (many businesses sell great products), but because the brand has value in the mind of the consumer. Once the buyer believes in the brand’s message, a coffee company can start selling sandwiches and coffee mugs and a clothing company can start selling bedsheets.

It’s a great macro example of the power of branding, but small businesses often miss the mark when it comes to applying lessons to their own businesses. They make the mistake of looking at the tactics and strategies successful companies are using now to grow their business. We can gain much more value by looking at how they started.

Each of the companies listed above began by selling something very specific to a well-defined group of people. And, even more important, they all started in a niche that was unique to them. These business owners had the guts to sell something they believed in, even though it didn’t fall into line with what was on the market.

What can we learn from this? If you really want to build a brand like Apple, or Nike, or Ralph Lauren, then don’t be like Ralph Lauren...

Be like Ralph Lifshitz.

I recently spoke with a woman who wanted to start a fashion blog. While entertaining different names and ideas, she said she wanted to leave room to grow into a larger brand. Although she was starting by selling styling services, eventually she wanted to launch an event company, home accessories, and possibly even a food line. Ultimately she wanted to establish a lifestyle brand that could sell high-end products but would also offer lower-priced items.

This is a common misstep for entrepreneurs. She was already planning for her Ralph Lauren empire and letting that larger goal influence the steps she needed to take in the near future while opening up shop in her basement.

Don’t get me wrong—thinking about your Big Hairy Audacious Goal is valuable. It’s a great way to connect with your dreams and stay motivated through the day-to-day challenges of starting a business. But it can also be a hindrance if it stifles your ability to succeed in the present if you are unable to focus your current message for fear of limiting your options later. Without successes along the way, you will never achieve the BHAG.

And this is where we can learn something from Ralph. I meet many people who want a brand like Ralph Lauren, and they talk about how Ralph is able to reach everyone: he has very expensive couture lines, but he also has mid-tier and more affordable lines like Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Polo. He sells clothes, shoes, home goods, and perfume—something for everyone!

What these RL fans usually don’t know is that Ralph Lauren was originally known as Ralph Lifshitz, and he didn’t start out selling all things to all people. He kicked off in the 1960s selling just ties. His big idea? He wanted men to make a statement with their ties. The fashion trend of the ’60s was skinny, plain ties, and Ralph’s wide ties in luxurious fabrics and colorful patterns stood out from the norm.

This was a bold move. Ralph wasn’t copying what he saw in the marketplace; he was swimming upstream toward his unique vision. Many people likely looked at his ties and laughed.

“Who’s going to buy those crazy colored wide ties? They’re not stylish at all. Skinny ties are what’s in style!”

He had to have the guts to ignore the voices telling him that wide ties were out. Instead, he boldly went in his own direction. Being different stood out, and led to him being recognized and remembered. That was the foundation upon which the billion-dollar brand was built.

If you want to be like Ralph Lauren, you have to start by thinking like Ralph Lifshitz. Many large brands share similar stories.

Apple is one of the most successful brands on the planet, and it’s easy to forget that the company was on the verge of bankruptcy for decades. It took almost 30 years of swimming upstream to become the behemoth we know today.

Apple believed that intuitive design was the future of computers, and it was a risky move. In fact, the first few attempts failed. But the company stuck with its focus, which was not easy when its competitors were growing by doing the opposite. Only after Apple stayed focused and found success with the iMac was it well equipped to venture into iPods and iPhones.

Apple’s rise to Brand Superstardom came after almost three decades in the business staying true to its vision. The brand remained committed to the bold and risky stance of being the more intuitive, design-focused, creative computer choice. Its current success illustrates how big the payoff can be.

Nike is a lifestyle sport brand these days, but for the first few years of business it was known as Blue Ribbon Sports, and it sold only running shoes for more than 20 years. Starbucks was a high-end coffee bean roaster for its first 10 years in business. None of these companies came out of the gate as a brand for everyone.

How does this relate to my small business?

It’s tempting to look to successful brands for the answer and try to emulate them. After all, why reinvent the wheel? If these tactics are working for other companies, they should work for you too—right?

Again, the mistake is looking at what these companies are doing now and trying to copy that instead of looking at where they started. And a common theme among successful businesses started by people on their own sweat equity (starting a business with investors is an entirely different game) is that they founded their brand with a laser focus on one idea. And that idea wasn’t a knockoff of someone else’s concept, but something with which they had personal experience. In addition, the founders usually had a personal excitement and passion for the chosen niche.

This is why one of my favorite questions to ask clients is “What is your favorite part of what you do? What do you love about what you do?” I’m amazed at how often they don’t have an answer. What you do that you love is the first place to look for the seed for your unique and powerful company and brand.

Ralph believed in his ties, and he loved them. He had to, because he had to overcome objections from people who didn’t share his vision.

My personal experience sticking to a vision

As someone who owns a company called Worstofall Design, I can personally attest to the need for vision. Imagine how many people told me we should change the name of our company when we first started! We had many reasons true to our vision to use the name and it has served us well, but that conviction was necessary to continue on in the face of adversity. (I’ll share more about how to name your company and the backstory of our name in the coming weeks—follow me if you want that article in your inbox!)

Another place we receive pushback is our process. We build entire brands in 1- to 2-day intensives for clients. Do you know how many people have shrugged and told us it’s not possible, and that they don’t believe the brands we build could possibly be any good?

But our model developed organically from a core set of abilities, interests, and goals unique to my partner and me. And it’s not for everyone. That’s why our homepage says, “ In order to be loved by some, you have to be misunderstood or even disliked by others. ” Because when you are doing something bold, noteveryone is going to get it. But if you get it, and if it is born out of your unique abilities and interests and goals, that is where the magic is born.

So if you own a business, and particularly if you sell your services and expertise, I encourage you to channel Ralph Lifshitz. What do you love about what you do? What do you know about your industry that gives you the conviction to overcome the objections of some because you know “your people” will get it and be energized by your message?

Branding small businesses is nothing like branding huge global brands, but these brands certainly have lessons to teach us. All of them started with a simple badass mission and a narrow focus rife with game-changing vision. Just learn those lessons from where they started, not where they are now.

This article was originally posted on Forbes. Follow @PiaLovesYourBiz, or sign up to get alerted when new articles are published. Also, subscribe here to stay posted on my upcoming book release and download a copy of the accompanying workbook!