How the Little Guy Can Win

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Say you run a small business. (Go ahead, say it: “I run a small business.”) And say you’re competing against one or more big players in your industry. (Ditto.) Is there any way you can come out ahead in such an uneven battle? Is there any way the little guy can win? Yes, there is—but not if you try to beat the big guy at his own game. You have to play a different game. It’s how underdog basketball teams have beaten far superior opponents, it’s how David beat Goliath, and it’s how George Washington beat the British. It’s a winning game plan for the small player, and it can work for your business. So what is this winning game plan? It’s actually pretty simple.

Malcome Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers spelled the game plan out in a recent New Yorker article, and the basic principle is this:

Effort can trump ability.

So how do you put this principle into practice? First, you stop playing by the big guy’s rule book. You’re not going to undercut Wal-Mart on price (at least, not for long). If David had tried to take on Goliath in a sword fight, he wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute. If George Washington had lined his soldiers up in a row opposite the British army and fought by the British rules of war, he and his army would have been slaughtered. So it’s up to you, as the little guy, to change the rules. Wal-Mart is playing the price game. That’s a game you can’t win. So where is Wal-Mart weak? Well, they are so big that they can’t possibly know each of their customers personally; they can’t know their birthdays, how many kids they have in school and who’s graduating this week, or where they took their last vacation. But maybe you can. So step one is to change the rules, and to play a different game than the one your bigger competition is playing.

Step two is to work your ass off. To be relentless. To hit the competition where they’re weakest and just keep hitting and hitting and hitting. Perhaps the competition can afford to rest; you can’t. In other words, don’t stop marketing just because the market’s down. Don’t stop your advertising just because the economy’s weak. Find a game the competition’s not playing—or can’t play as well because of their size—and keep working it, relentlessly.

When the Beatles were just a small local band in Liverpool, the big game was in London. Now, the Beatles could have packed up their gear, driven a few hours south, and tried to compete in the London clubs against the London bands. And they would have been eaten alive. They couldn’t compete against the big boys in the big boys’ game. So they changed the rules and played a different game. They went to little Hamburg, Germany. The big boys were too big to bother with Hamburg. The Beatles weren’t. They could play a different game. And what did they do when they got there? They worked, and they worked, and they worked. They played six, seven, eight hours straight, seven nights a week. They were relentless. And they won.

Yes, you’ve got competition—maybe even formidable competition. If you try to take them on head to head, you’re going to lose. Instead, play a different game. Change the rules. Figure out where they’re not looking, and then hit them over and over and over again. Be relentless. It’s your winning game.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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