Why The Underdog Can and Should Win

I know we all live in a blog world where information and ideas come in snippets, bullet points, and 140 character micro-thoughts. Just once in a while we need to stop and read something of substance to be reminded that brilliant ideas take time to evolve and grow. Malcolm Gladwell is the new master of intuitive counter-intelligence. Please set aside fifteen minutes and read his recent article in The New Yorker titled “How David Beats Goliath”. It will make you wish you were an underdog again.

In many respects Mr. Gladwell validates what I have felt for a long time: startup businesses have a greater chance for game-changing success than established institutions. Of course startups are more nimble and have less financial overhead, but there is something more intangible than that. “Effort can trump ability… because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.” Startups are underdogs, but we all fear them. Underdogs can circumvent pricing conventions, offer value-added services without discretion, and have nothing to lose by giving it their all. And if you think about it, they have more time because they have few hard-won, high maintenance clients to placate – until they take yours.

When my consulting clients complain about the competition, I try to decipher what the core issue is. It generally comes down to the violation of perceived conventions. Pricing, services, perceived quality of products – tough competitors seem to ignore what they are supposed to do and get the customer’s attention by being bad. In fact, the underdog’s lack of understanding of how business is done seems to be their advantage. It’s like the unruly kid in class that gets all the teacher’s attention while the good rules followers are left to fend for themselves.

My solution? It’s not to be bad, per se. It’s to change where your effort is placed and then double it. If you have been selling at grass roots and butting heads with competitors, then switch gears and sell at the enterprise level with extreme prejudice. Underdogs risk it all. If you go up against your competitors at the enterprise level, then start a grass roots campaign. Or maybe you should sell to your customer’s customer. In a highly competitive market, tremendous effort on the weakest, most unattended entry point will get penetration. It’s great to know what your rivals are doing if for no other reason than you should do something else: Think like a startup and win like an underdog.


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