113: Branding Lessons from a High-Rise Crane Operator
I had the privilege to climb a 15-story construction crane and interview its operator. He graciously answered a bevy of my questions, some of which probably sounded mundane or elementary to him. While I learned about his fascinating world 57 meters above the other workmen, one of his answers surprised me as much as any.
We were standing next to the counter weights on the machine arm—the short boom on the back of the crane opposite of the long boom (called a “jib”) from which the hook descends. I asked, “How heavy of an object can you lift with this thing?”
“Out on the end, one and a half tons—maybe two tons. Close to the middle, I can lift three tons,” Rudolph answered in his heavily-accented English.
He might have meant tonnes (2,205 pounds) instead of tons (2,000 pounds), but the proportions are the same. Either way, the closer he got to the central mast, the more he could lift. The closer he got to his core strength, he got more efficient and more capable—with less risk. He could take fewer loads to move the same amount of material or take on loads otherwise impossible.
I highly doubt Rudolph realized the inherent advice that he was giving. It’s the same advice I give college juniors and seniors who ask me how to build a successful business and the advice I give nascent auctioneers in the halls at conferences: “Focus on your core competencies. Find what you do best, and focus on the niche market that values that.” It’s advice I had to learn from experience.
Early in my career, I took on work at the end of the jib. Technically, I managed to move whatever the material I was asked to move; but I wasn’t efficient at it and, candidly, probably not even effective at it. Eventually, I got out of web design, then logo design. I stopped taking on projects from companies outside the auction industry (except for barters). I’m now even considering dropping a service for which I’ve won an award—because my hook seems at the end of the jib every time I provide it.
The difficult part is giving someone the direction to head from that advice. You can’t always follow your heart; it often leads you to hobbies and/or unemployment. It’s more than honing a natural skill. If a lot of people have the same skill, you’ll struggle as a commodity. It’s unfair to depend on serendipity; but somewhere in the mix, it seems like most entrepreneur tales and success stories hinge on it. Mine does, too.
That said, once you find that sweet spot—that area of specialty, that niche of proficiency—stay there. As soon as you can, discover where you’re an expert and stray as little from that prowess as possible. Why?
- The more efficient you are, the less you’ll have to work for the same income.
- You’ll waste less time & energy and give fewer excuses & apologies to customers—some of which can be very expensive.
- Customers prefer experts, and they’ll usually pay an expert more than they’ll pay a general practitioner.
- By default, you’ll have fewer competitors, the farther away from generalist you can brand yourself.
The adage is true: the jack of all trades is the master of none. You can’t specialize in six different auction (or graphic design) markets. That would mean that you average 16% expertise per segment. If someone is looking for a specific specialization, they’re going to look for someone whose expertise averages as close to 100% as possible.
When I tandem hang glide, I don’t ride with just any pilot—even though my church buddies fly helicopters, experimental aircraft, 767’s, and acrobatic stunt planes. I ride with a licensed, tandem hang gliding instructor. When I want my MINI inspected for a track day, I take it to the only BMW racing specialist in town—not one of probably a dozen DMV-licensed inspection centers in the Lynchburg area. And if I ever had to lift 5,000 pounds of rebar ten stories and drop it next to a South African contractor, I’d ask Rudolph.
Taking It Personally
I benefit from people who have heavily invested themselves into one hobby and can help me experience them, but I tend to dip my toes in multiple adventures rather than dive into any one of them. I’m the same with vacation spots, as I generally prefer to explore a new destination rather than revisit an old one. From what I’ve read online, the stimulation from new experiences keeps our brains active and more creative.
In other words, diversity is good for most of us. While I teach others to stay in a professional niche, I tend to encourage acquaintances, friends, and family to broaden their horizons off the clock. The world is too big of a place to leave unseen.
This morning [January 16], as I walked the streets and sidewalks on a continent I’d never seen before yesterday, I thought of a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
*SPECIAL THANKS to Ian Immelman for granting me access to the WBHO crane and to Rudolph, its operator!*