Business Week on Winning Via Inspiration

Win Via Inspiration, Not Panic

Don’t fear bigger businesses that might encroach upon your turf. Use your entrepreneurial mindset to beat them, say G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón


“Entrepreneur: the type of personality who is willing to take upon herself or himself a new venture or enterprise and accepts full responsibility for the outcome.” —Wikipedia

In our last article we made the bold proclamation that there has never been a better time to innovate. Look around and you will see that people with an entrepreneurial mindset view the recession in general—and your company’s latest crisis in particular—as their next big opportunity.

So what do you do if you’re ready to fight (beefing up marketing, introducing new products), but your boss is convinced it is time for flight (hunkering down, hoarding cash, letting people go, and delaying or canceling all new products)?

Our advice: steal from the best. No one is better than entrepreneurs at finding opportunities within a problem (or even a full-blown crisis). So borrow some pages from their playbook. Here are three ideas.

1. Take a lot of small bites. Big businesses are designed to create big wins because their costs for launching new products demand it. It is not uncommon for our clients to ask for a $50 million to $100 million return for a single launch. As you can imagine, this type of return comes with inherent risks that are not too popular right now. Consequently (and unfortunately), many large projects have been put on indefinite hold. While we believe this is shortsighted, we understand the cost involved means biting off more than a company is willing to chew right now.

Entrepreneurs can hardly fathom the type of budgets that typically support one of these “mega-projects,” yet they often manage to bootstrap their way to the kind of results these big firms are looking for.

How? The lesson here is less about dollars spent and more about how they digest the challenge. Two words: small bites.

Small bites means:

• Trying 10 ideas in the time it takes large companies to try one.

• Using the Internet to test four different media and creative strategies instead of rolling out an expensive print campaign.

• Trying four different business models at the same time to see which one has legs.

• Doing all of this fast and cheaply.

Small businesses eventually spend big bucks to support an idea, but the idea has been chewed on again and again before they do. The lesson for you: think. What unconventional ways are there to test and improve an idea inside and outside your company’s walls? How can you create momentum before your boss sees your idea? How can you do it before your idea is pitched to your customer?

2. Hit them when they least expect it. When was the last time you thought about taking on a giant? Grainger, the leading global broad-line supplier of facilities-maintenance products, does about $7 billion annually in sales. A few years back, Home Depot (HD) gave Grainger a scare when it spent $3.5 billion to buy Hughes Supply, a direct competitor. By making the move, Home Depot was declaring war.

As one might have expected, Grainger reacted aggressively with public relations and marketing. The counterattack, coupled with the housing market downturn, put Home Depot on its heels. With the threat gone and the market down, Grainger appears to be coasting.

To entrepreneur Matt Kuttler, there is no better time to take a swing at the company. While billions were being spent to buy a Grainger competitor, Kuttler was starting, which offers a total of 200,000 restaurant supplies, office supplies, electronics, and tools.

“The fact is, it’s usually way easier to compete with large companies than small ones. They are set in their ways—we’re not. We can react. We can test ideas more quickly to better serve the customer. Most businesses are afraid to wake the sleeping giant. That’s where we find the most opportunity,” says Kuttler, whose company is based in Hollywood, Fla., with warehouses across the country. “The Goliaths have bigger problems than worrying about small businesses like mine.”

3. Use the Alpha SWOT Analysis. Typically SWOT— or strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—analysis is used to identify internal opportunities. Now may be the time to turn a modified version on your competitors.

Imagine the competition as being scared, frozen, exhausted, and weary right now. Now stop imagining, because this is exactly how they are feeling.

Aggressive small business people naturally look for weaknesses during these moments. You can, too, by employing a different kind of SWOT analysis—let’s call it the Alpha Small Business SWOT. Here’s how it breaks down:

S = Sneakiness. How can we do something our most beaten-down competitors would never be prepared for?

W = Will. What would break their spirit right now? What would make them lose faith in their strategy?

O = Offense. What are the top 10 aggressive tactics we can employ immediately that would hurt our competitors the most?

T = Thinking (radically). How can you redefine the marketplace, leaving the competition scrambling to catch up?

By using any one of these three techniques, you can assemble an aggressive, simple strategy that will demonstrate you are a fearless visionary. Imagine going into your boss’s office and giving her a pep talk.

Even if you don’t succeed at making your initiatives happen, you will have identified yourself as a person unafraid of a good fight. And the most frightened boss knows that the winning companies are made up of fighters right now.

G. Michael Maddock is founding partner, and Raphael Louis Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, a company that invents, brands, and markets products “for companies driven by innovation.” .