If a lion is a cat and a falcon is a bird, what’s a platypus? Every so often, evolution, like an innovative entrepreneur, creates something that defies categorization. Something that doesn’t resemble anything else. But distinctiveness makes it ideally suited for the environment in which it lives.  The platypus, like a unique business, is such a creature.

In the 18th-century researchers thought the platypus was a hoax stitched together from other animals. Platypuses have coats like beavers but bills and webbed feet like ducks. They have venomous stingers like wasps and lay eggs like reptiles. But they are mammals and these seemingly spare parts aren’t random. The bills contain electro-receptors to locate prey in murky waters. The fur keeps them warm and the tail stores fat for lean periods. The webbed feet help them swim and the venomous spurs protect them from predators. Evolution stitched these parts together to thrive in cold and murky rivers. Entrepreneurs must create businesses in the same way.

Consider CrossFit. Gyms provide countless ways to get fit but members still struggle. Gyms remain open around the clock and provide access to every type of fitness equipment imaginable. They include pools and saunas. They offer racquetball and basketball. Yet, many paying members still visit gyms less frequently than the dentist.

CrossFit is not a gym – at least not in the traditional sense. It offers one thing: grueling instructor-led high-intensity-interval-training (HIIT) group classes. Gyms offer personalized plans, convenient hours, and customized resources for individuals. CrossFit does not. It’s not a personal trainer either. It’s not personalized at all. Nor is it a home fitness solution or independent Bootcamp. CrossFit is a community where members, CrossFitters, can participate in a class at any affiliate around the world – called a box. Each box performs the same workouts, uses the same lingo, and encompasses the same supportive philosophy. They motivate and cheer every member regardless of their ability or fitness level. The last person to finish the workout, not the first, hears the loudest support.

Start with a philosophy narrowly focused on the ideal customer. CrossFit realized convenience and amenities entice people to join gyms but not to exercise. So it avoids them. CrossFit appeals only to the athletes who want to get very fit and those who value a community of similarly motivated individuals. The fancy equipment, pools, saunas, juice bars, and racketball courts at the typical gym guarantee neither. It focuses on getting a few people fit rather than signing a lot of members who never workout. The corporate philosophy centers around the following: 

  • Elaborate machines aren’t necessary.
  • Members are more likely to meet their fitness goals when they are supported by others.
  • Austere gyms appeal to elite athletes and reduce the expense of opening a franchise.
  • One-on-one personal training is too expensive for the average consumer. Group classes are more economical and supportive.

People who want to plan their own workouts or exercise at odd hours won’t appreciate CrossFit. Those who want to play racketball or visit a sauna won’t either. But the ones who appreciate varied workouts, classes at set times, and guaranteed access to supportive training partners will. It’s not for everyone and it’s not intended to be.

Unique businesses resist competition. CrossFit doesn’t compete directly with gyms because its customers value different things. Gym members want amenities and convenience. They want personalized services. They want access to equipment that they could not afford to purchase for themselves. Conversely, CrossFitters seek varied and high-intensity workouts, a supportive culture of like-minded members, and a barebones setting. Few traditional gyms attempt to offer the combination.

Combine elements from different sources. CrossFit leverages Olympic weightlifting, which was the tool of powerlifters but not the typical gym. Group instruction was limited for activities like dance, yoga, and martial arts. Calisthenics has been part of every military bootcamp and high school team regiment for forever. HIIT began as a runner’s tool. Communities are not typically associated with gyms because they are focused on individuals. These ingredients to CrossFit’s recipe get people fit. It doesn’t matter where they originated. It only matters that they work.

Exclude services that don’t benefit the ideal customer. CrossFit affiliates are austere. They are set in industrial areas around warehouses where the rent is low and space is plentiful. They aren’t shiny or aesthetically appealing like many gyms. They are off the beaten path and serious looking, like the workouts. There are racks of weights, kettlebells, pullup bars, and medicine balls but nothing elaborate. There are no juice bars or saunas. There is no circuit weight-training equipment and many don’t have showers. There are no racketball courts although there may be a massive tire to flip for entertainment. Classes are limited to specific times rather than the 24-hour access many gyms provide. 

Offer something unique. CrossFit is a community built around a place to exercise. Members have their own language where affiliates are called boxes and workouts have names like Murph, Amanda, and Fran. Each year there is an open tournament where members watch the best CrossFitters in the world complete. When CrossFitters travel, they’re welcome in any of thousands of affiliates for a few dollars and a signed waiver. The community is one of CrossFit’s biggest attributes but it is never listed in the monthly bill.

Construct your platypus. Building a unique business requires a philosophy centered around the ideal customer. There are so many alternatives that your business must be distinctive and laser-focussed. Stay true to them above all else. Only include capabilities that produce value for them and fight the urge to broaden the company’s appeal. It dilutes the value to those who are the most loyal. Building it in this way creates something truly different, appreciated by a group of followers, and resistant to competition. 

You will have succeeded when each element is essential and the result is difficult to describe. When it is one part beaver, one part bird, and one part wasp, you’ve accomplished your goal.