Rocky Mountain Low

Quick: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colorado? 

If you said, “mountains” or “sunshine” or “legal weed,” I’m going to give you full credit.

For me, unfortunately, and up until just last week, the answer would have been, “unbelievably long lines at the Advantage car rental office.” 

That’s because one year ago, when my wife Linda and I landed at Denver airport en route to dropping off our son Jonathan for his freshman year at the University of Denver, that’s what we faced.

We picked up our luggage, boarded the courtesy bus and set off to the Advantage office. When we arrived five minutes later, the line was literally out the door.

Inside, things were even worse. 

There were (no exaggeration) at least 100 people waiting, comprising a line that snaked back and forth across the entire lobby.

Even with four reps working the counter, it was a full 90 minutes before we got our keys and drove away. 

I vowed to never use that company again. After all, with Jon in school in Denver, this would not be the last time we’d arrive in need of a rental car.

Unfortunately, it was not to be that easy. 


As we made plans to drop Jon off this year, I soon discovered that all the rental car companies at the Denver airport have abysmal reviews, most of which are also focused on the extraordinarily long wait times.

In fact, I was just about to resign myself to another long wait when I discovered Car Rental Denver

Granted, not the most imaginative name for a company (I guess Acme Car Rental was taken), and with just seven reviews under its plain vanilla belt, I was a bit hesitant.

But wow, the reviews were fabulous. And the process – all the paperwork done beforehand, pick up and drop off in the airport terminal, the owner himself (Nate) answering the phone when I called – seemed too good to be true.

But true it was. We got back just a few days ago and the experience could not have been better. It seems that Nate has found himself an attractive little niche.

A few things worth noting, all of which relate to your small business as well: 

  • He’s identified a weakness in the system. 

    For whatever reason, renting a car at Denver International Airport stinks. Everyone hates it. Nate has built a business whose very existence depends on a known problem. That’s a good place to start.

    Many professionals, on the other hand, create services based on what they happen to be good at, or what they enjoy doing. That matters too, of course.

    But if whatever it is you do doesn’t make somebody’s job (way) easier or life (way) better, you’re running uphill. Always start with a problem that needs solving.

  • His key differentiator has nothing to do with what he’s actually selling. 

    Did you notice that I have yet to say anything about the car itself – whether it was clean or well-maintained or whatever? That matters, but for the most part, a car is a car.

    In this case, the opportunity isn’t in what the customer is buying – it’s in the buying process itself. 

    How about you? If you’re a financial planner, consultant, coach, recruiter, writer or some other exceedingly-similar-to-the-competition professional, maybe the way to separate yourself from the pack has nothing to do with the service you sell.

    Maybe, there’s more opportunity in highlighting how available you are (do your clients have your cell phone number?). Or in your payment options (do you accept credit cards?). Or in your terms (do you offer a money back guarantee?).

    See if you can look beyond the (obvious) service you provide to its (not so obvious) delivery.

  • His approach doesn’t scale. 

    Nate himself answered whenever I called or texted. He handled all the paperwork and payment. He personally met us at the departure curb when we dropped the car off.

    I don’t know how many cars he rents out (or how profitable his business is), but with this configuration, even if the big companies wanted to copy him, they couldn’t.

    As a result, his business model’s lack of scalability, while it prevents him from growing beyond a certain size, is his competitive advantage. 

    I use a similar approach. Since I have no interest in growing beyond myself, I deliberately do things my larger competitors either can’t or won’t: I don’t try to monetize every interaction. I offer unlimited revisions for anything I write. I don’t force deadlines or processes on clients out of a need to streamline a big machine.

    My lack of automation keeps the big guys away.

Here’s the bottom line. It’s logical to view the service you provide as the thing you ought to focus on when trying to stand out from the competition. The problem for professional service providers, though, is that there is often little we can do beyond offering nuanced tweaks.

Instead, look for how the service itself is delivered. Many times, particularly if you compete with larger firms, the upside there is much higher.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What’s the longest line you’ve ever waited in?
  1. Were you waiting to buy more weed?
  1. How do you differentiate your services in a way that is not about the service itself?

Share your comments below!

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21 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain Low

  1. Charles Alexander

    1) Had to be at one of those %$&# rides at Disney World.
    2) Nope. Was already high from the impending heat stroke.
    3) I create animated videos, but I rarely talk about that as a service.
    I specialize in specific industries (financial advisors, mortgage, insurance, business coaches) and I focus on making the process for getting them a video SUPER SIMPLE.

    And the first thing I think of when someone mentions Colorado is Eric Bieniemy.
    Yeah, I know that’s weird.

  2. Nikki

    3.5 hours in line at a CA DMV office to replace a lost license. Needless to say, the new picture is atrocious.
    Weed would have made it less hellish.
    Live phone support, answered within in 1 minute.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Wow, 3. 5 hours. Last time I needed a new license here in Massachusetts I went to a AAA office. No waiting and easy as could be.

      (Love the 1 minute pick up time.)

      1. Laurie Schnebly Campbell

        I had no idea AAA could be a possibility for a new license — next time I need one, I’ve gotta check that out in Arizona!

        One more thing that makes Blue Penguin an awesome resource…my other favorite is the choice of hearing OR reading the message. It’s bizarre how very few podcasters (or newsletter writers, for that matter) offer both options.

        1. Michael Katz Post author

          Yes. AAA was such a great experience – there was nobody in there but me the day I went so there were two very friendly people helping me with my license. It was like finding a secret back door to your favorite concert venue!

          And I’m glad you like the podcast option. In fact, just this very morning, we fixed a glitch that made the podcast not work on a phone. I think it’s now device agnostic which is nice to have too!

  3. Glenn E Miller

    1. Longest line: airport
    2. No weed
    3. I think I am different in that I have been in small business for about 35 years and I think I relate pretty well to small business owners. I am always interested in how a business operates because I know it is always simple when on the outside looking in, but way more complicated with lots of moving parts on the inside. And that simple statement or some variation of it resonates with small business owners.

  4. Kathryn H.

    It just occurred to me that “Car Rental Denver” is what I’d type into a search engine to find a car in Denver. So, that name was probably brilliant. 🙂

  5. Bill Sell

    Longest line? Taxi at the airport in Vegas over two hours. A poorly designed but don’t tell us how to do our job better situation there that has helped fuel Lyft and Uber, and the dozens of car services in Vegas. Denver is known for long waits everywhere including TSA.

    I differentiate services by calling the customers and actually talking to them. Too many people live behind emails and texts. On the phone or in person the conversation goes everywhere and that is important when getting to actually know the client.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That’s a great differentiator, Bill!

      And now that you mention it, I had that same experience in Vegas. Luckily, I ran into someone I knew headed to the same hotel and was able to ride along!

  6. Jean Feingold

    I remember some long waits at Disney World.
    How I differentiate myself as a writer is by beating every deadline with clean ready to use copy (and warning clients early if anything might delay the process). The problem with getting potential clients who have written books full of grammatical and spelling errors to hire me so I can fix those errors is they don’t recognize they have a problem or they believe it is unimportant when I point it out to them. One can only assume their readers are also illiterate.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I agree on that problem, Jean. If people don’t believe they have a problem and that they can’t solve it themselves, it doesn’t matter if we are right, they won’t hire someone to fix it. Much better to find people who understand the value going in as opposed to trying to convince them.

  7. Howard F Pierpont

    This is a special kind of Denver issue. I live north of the airport in Greeley CO. We had 2 different hail storms that did damage to vehicles, house roofs and crops. There have been hail storms that killed animals at the zoo and took out windows of vehicles in effect totaling them at once. Many other cars had hail damage that the repairs exceeded the value of the vehicle.
    I have a friend that works as a senior member of a car rental company. They manage the comings and goings of 7,000 cars in his office alone. With the need for replacements the number went to 12,000. Then vacations for the east coast were starting while all the college families were arriving. The there have been 2 major recalls requiring 400 vehicles be found [if out on rental] returned and replaced. The second one was this weekend.
    I’d really ready the private renters insurance policy very closely and see what your MA insurance and credit cards cover in case of an accident. And they do.
    I waited so long for a rental in San Jose [my company talk was cancelled] and I never let the airport.

    1. Howard F Pierpont

      I was at the USAirport Parking dropping off my car while on a trip to Portland. There is an awareness campaign about Drift – Protected by Allstate. Theory is I drop off my car, the wash and clean the inside, someone rents and returns it before my scheduled return time. Washed and cleaned again. Goal is for the vehicle owner to share in the profits of the rent. UUSAirport will supply shuttle round trip to the airport. Informational only, I have no financial interest.

  8. William

    1. 1.5 miles for the opening of the new Krispy Kreme. Finally bailed and went to Shipleys.

    2. Weed and weed killer — never.

    3. While they are all zigging, I’m zagging

  9. Diane

    “My lack of automation keeps the big guys away.”

    I had a great client for a couple of years. The competition noticed and started sniffing around, wanting to come in and do a big pitch. When my client mentioned this to me, I said, with some envy, that the competing vendor operated like a well-oiled machine. Client’s response? “We actually prefer those riding bicycles.” I kept the business. Your piece reminded me of that moment. Sweet.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Diane! A good reminder too that some clients want to hire a big company (well-oiled machine) and others prefer small (bicycle). That’s why I always think it’s a mistake when solos and small companies try to look big. We give up a key advantage and in the end, since we are not big, we are making promises that are hard to keep.


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