From Special Snowflake To Special Sauce

A Subtle Mindset Shift That Leads To Big Business Results

I avoided confronting my mindset as a business owner for years.

I figured that, if I got the numbers and the strategy right, I could grow my business without worrying about my own personal development or leadership.

But the more I looked around, the more I realized that the entrepreneurs who were excelling in ways I wanted to excel thought differently than I did. They approached their systems, customers, and identity in a way that felt unfamiliar.

After a good long while and plenty of false starts, I realized that mindset was every bit as important to the success of a business as strategy and numbers.

I’ve been hosting the What Works podcast for over 3 years now and I’ve interviewed over 150 small business owners in my quest to find out what’s working — and what’s not — to grow and manage a business today.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to ask creatives, coaches, tech entrepreneurs, educators, writers, and designers how they approach their businesses. Sure, they’ve given me the nitty-gritty on how things work and why they do things the way they do. But they’ve also given me — and you, our listeners — a front-row seat to how they think.

To grow our businesses, the way we think about our businesses needs to grow and evolve, too.

Sure, the business owners I’ve interviewed do things very differently. I’ve talked to people who sell high-end services and those who sell accessible physical goods. I’ve talked to people who are building big teams and those who are going it solo.

However, I’ve noticed that the most successful among them have a similar mindset about key aspects of their businesses. They think pretty similarly about how they tackle problems and create value.

But they didn’t start out thinking that way. Their mindsets have evolved over time. Many have even gone through similar identity crises, mindset shifts, and vision overhauls — all because the way they were thinking about their businesses subtly shifted.

These subtle mindset shifts are — as I see it — a key missing piece for many small business owners confused about why their businesses aren’t growing.

I wanted a way to document the patterns and changes I saw among our guests here at What Works. So over the last 6 weeks, I wrote a small book called Subtle: The Small Shifts That Lead To Big Results.

Today’s special episode of What Works is one of my favorite chapters from the book: the shift from Special Snowflake to Special Sauce.

Be sure to listen (or keep reading) if you have a hunch that the idea “only you can do what you do” is holding your business back from greater success.

And, if you want to grab a copy of the whole book (including audio version) for yourself, click here!

From Special Snowflake To Special Sauce

Only you can do what you do. Customers buy to get a piece of you.
You’ve created a process or system that generates results. Customers buy in order to reap the rewards of that process.

As soon as you choose to enter the world of self-employment, you’re bound to hear some variation on the mantra: “Only you can do what you do.”

That mantra is designed to assure you that you have something unique to offer the world at a time when you might be feeling ill-equipped, vulnerable, or generally nervous about your prospects as a business owner. Unfortunately, it’s a mantra that makes people feel good for a bit but ultimately guides them down a path that makes doing business much harder.

In February 2018, the International Coach Federation estimated that there were approximately 53,000 life coaches in the United States. If even just the top 5% of those coaches are exceptionally effective, that still means that those coaches are competing with 2,649 others who are equally effective.

What about for web designers? Management consultants? Therapists? Even artists, illustrators, and photographers? While it’s true that there’s enough business for everyone, it isn’t true that you are somehow uniquely qualified for success.

There is no participation trophy for putting up a website and calling it a business. You are not a special snowflake. Plenty of people are doing what you do and helping clients or customers get incredible results.

They can fulfill the same value proposition and deliver the same results. They have similar strengths and talents. Until you come to terms with that, you’ll be constantly at odds with the fact that you’re just one of thousands delivering the same kind of product or service.

What’s worse, when you’re focused on taking advantage of your special snowflake status, you make decisions that force you deeper and deeper into your business instead of allowing you to step outside it and act as an owner. Thinking you’re a special snowflake only keeps you deeply entrenched in your business, ignorant of market reality, and stymied in your capacity for growth.

With the subtle shift from being in it to owning it comes the deep knowledge that you are not your business, making it clear that considering yourself a special snowflake does nothing for the growth potential of your business. You begin to see that your personal set of values, strengths, and systems only matter if they’re operationalized into the business. That realization leads to our second subtle change.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a closer look at how the “special snowflake” concept wreaks havoc in a small business.


Up until you reach the Ceiling, the value proposition for your business is likely centered on you. You might offer access to your time or special attention. Maybe you offer personal management or design of your clients’ projects. Maybe you take pride in the fact that you touch every product that ships.

You assume that your time and energy is the cost of doing business. That it’s spent in Q&A calls, coaching sessions, project design or oversight, or some other aspect of you that is actively baked into your offer.

In order to create value, you have to be involved. You probably even measure value by its relation to you and your energy. Certainly, you can scale this to a point with digital products, small group programs, or careful team support but at some point the Ceiling is waiting for you.

This is the plight of a special snowflake business. No matter how much you create leverage, as long as the value of what you’re creating is predicated on “only you can do what you do,” you’ll continue to bump up against the Ceiling.

Let’s make a subtle shift from special snowflake to special sauce.


Coca Cola’s special sauce is a secret only a few select employees know because recipes cannot be protected by US intellectual property law. If it becomes known publicly, there’s nothing to stop another company — or a few — from reproducing Coke and selling it far and wide. The formula was created by John Pemberton in the late 19th century. It was purchased by Asa Candler in 1891 and he founded the Coca-Cola company as we know it today.

John Pemberton created the secret sauce. Asa Candler saw the value of the secret sauce and created the first settlements of a beverage empire. In 1919, Ernest Woodruff and a group of investors purchased the secret sauce yet again and took over the company.

Somewhere in your business is your very own Coca Cola recipe. It’s a process, a framework, a style, or a recipe that is at once all your own and insanely valuable without you. Your secret sauce is something you created the initial formulation for but that others can reproduce and even improve on.

Being a special snowflake feels good. It’s personally validating. It allows you to take a certain level of credit when your client succeeds or your customer gets incredible results. Making the decision to no longer think of yourself as a special snowflake means shaking off a core piece of your identity.

Discovering the special sauce you’ve already created, though, is liberating. It means there’s a method to the madness — that there’s something that can be refined and made better. It doesn’t depend on whether you got a full 8 hours of sleep, or the stars aligning, or on magic.


Now, I know that many consider their powers of coaching, analysis, design, or creation to be a form of magic. It seems ephemeral despite the fact that it works again and again.

Arthur C. Clarke, a futurist, science fiction author, television host — all-around super cool nerd — wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If you were able to show the internet to someone from 1920, they’d think it was magic. If you showed someone from 1940 how to order an Uber ride, they’d think it was magic. Heck, I had an Amazon Prime Now package delivered to me in 2016 in less than 12 minutes and it was honestly magical.

What seems magical about all of this is just technology that you don’t yet understand. It’s not technology the way we often think of it: code, hardware, high-tech inventions. It’s technology in the broader sense: the skills, processes, and methods. These allow you to create a product or deliver a service that achieves a particular result.

As part of the subtle shift from special snowflake to special sauce, your job is to devote yourself to understanding and improving on this technology — not continuing to believe you are casting spells.

Early in her career, singer-songwriter Cathy Heller worked hard and got a record deal from Interscope Records and then another from Atlantic Records — neither worked out. After a string of odd jobs and a bout of practicality, Cathy felt like she was living someone else’s life. Things weren’t working and she wasn’t happy.

She says she thought at the time, “There’s got to be a way for me to do music. There’s just got to be another way. I had enough talent to get noticed by these people — so something was good. But it wasn’t the whole enchilada. Still, I knew there was something there.”

A few weeks after deciding she wanted to find another way to do music for a living, she picked up an issue of Billboard magazine. In it, there was an article about indie musicians who were licensing their songs for movies, TV, and commercials. Like most people, she’d taken this area of the industry for granted. She’d never considered how that music got there and whether the artists behind it were getting paid.

She decided to do some research. She started watching ads and writing down what she noticed about the music in them. She says, “I noticed that all these songs for ads were really uplifting. They wanted you to believe that, if you went to Lowe’s for paint, it was going to be the best day ever.” She noticed slightly different patterns in the songs for movies and television.

She started to see these patterns as the stories and emotions that movies, TV shows, and ads were trying to convey. Then, she saw the patterns as problems she could solve. She realized she could go into the recording studio and create music that filled the need for advertising executives and movie producers.

It worked. Catch The Moon Music was born, specializing in licensing music to everything from Hollywood movies to New York City advertising agencies. Cathy’s music started to appear in ads for major companies like Walmart and, yes, Coca-Cola. Her music was featured in countless TV shows and movies. But Cathy’s success didn’t stop there.

Cathy realized that, while she was a talented singer and songwriter, others could do what she was doing. And, if she could help those songwriters get placements, her business could grow. She realized that she could train others in the skill and problem-solving framework she’d developed so that the talent pool could increase exponentially.

Cathy doesn’t think of herself as a special snowflake. No doubt she is confident and self-assured. I’m sure she realizes that her story is unique. But Cathy built her business around a special sauce — not her talent as a songwriter. She developed and trained others on how to create her special sauce, too.


What makes your special sauce valuable isn’t you. What makes it valuable is that it works. It solves a problem. It creates a result. It’s dependable and reproducible. Cathy took the magic of songwriting and turned it into a process that she — or any other songwriter — could follow to create results.

If you haven’t discovered your personal brand of special sauce yet, it’s time to start paying close attention. There are things you do on a daily basis with your clients or customers, with the products you create, that aren’t a stroke of genius but instead a carefully engineered procedure that you’re not aware you’re following. Your job now is to start documenting that process.

If you have discovered your special sauce and you don’t know what to do with it, it’s time to find someone to share it with. It might be your first employee, an apprentice, or a workshop full of students. The “who” doesn’t matter so much as that you start communicating it to someone else. As you train and communicate your process, you’ll refine and improve it. Plus, your trainee will likely notice things about it that you haven’t — and that’s a good thing.

After you’ve discovered, documented, and refined your special sauce, it’s time to examine your business model and the vision for your company. Your special sauce is now your main asset. It will change your capacity for serving customers, hiring team members, and selling products so make sure that’s reflected in your plans.

If you find that this process feels uncomfortable, don’t panic. You’ve built your business on how valuable others perceive you to be. Wrestling that value away from your self-worth and putting it on a something as mundane as a procedure or process will shake you. With time, lots of personal reprogramming, and plenty of fresh brand messaging, you will see the other side.

And, your business will thank you for it.

In what ways do you base the value of what you do on who you are? Why?
What do you currently do that feels like magic? What’s the underlying technology?
Who do you know who could do what you do with the proper training and process?