This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 19-July-2012 issue
What do birdfights, start-ups and David and Goliath have in common? At first glance, not much. However an example from nature shows the connection and how we can learn from this.
Recently, I was working outside on my laptop while waiting for my kids to finish their gymnastics sessions. A few pigeons were pecking in the sand searching for food. So I threw them a piece of sandwich that my kids hadn’t eaten.
The largest pigeon dived in to grab the sandwich for himself. Instinctively, he puffed himself up to appear more intimidating. He then charged the other pigeons and chased them away when they tried to peck the morsel. However, whenever he did this, he would leave the bread unprotected. He also ignored other bird species eyeing the prize. This went on for about 10 minutes, while a tiny sparrow watched the scene un-noticed from a bench nearby. When the largest pigeon once again left the food unguarded to charge yet another pigeon, the sparrow seized the opportunity. He dived in, grabbed the piece of bread in his beak and flew off to his nest. The largest pigeon came back to find his prize gone. He’d been so busy defending his spoils in the same way against the same pigeons, that he’d been oblivious to other competitors. Until it was too late.
For us as businesspeople, there are a number of valuable lessons here:
- Competitors can come in all shapes and sizes, and not always in the form you expect. They can also come from any industry. When we interviewed entrepreneurs for our Mzansi Gold angel investor network, all too often the weaker entrepreneurs would say “I don’t have any competitors”, or they would assume their only competitors were the ones in the same industry as them. If only business was that straightforward. A competitor can consist of any concept that competes with yours for your customer’s money, time and attention, even if it is an indirect substitute. So if you’re selling TVs, your competitors could be also forms of exercise, because your customer could choose to spend their time exercising instead of watching TV. Don’t ignore the less obvious competition.
- Don’t assume competitors will think like you do. If they come from different industries, they have different training, experience, strengths and weaknesses. And they won’t use the same tactics you do. Be prepared for the unexpected, and have a Plan B. And C.
- Don’t assume smaller competitors are weaker. David and Goliath is a classic example of how intellect and strategy can outwit strength. Too often, market leaders try to muscle out their smaller competitors with strong-arm tactics. Not all start-ups are defeated by this. Like the sparrow in the above story, the smarter ones study their larger competitors well and know their Achilles Heel. Then when the market leaders least expect it, the start-up can outwit them when they’re down. Market leaders need to watch out for this.
- The quickest mover gets the reward. Business is full of examples of the large, sluggish market leader being slow to react to market changes, while the lean, agile start-up seizes the gap and disrupts the market to become the new market leader. Think of the digital camera bankrupting Kodak, or Facebook toppling MySpace. Nowadays, every established company faces the risk of having its industry – and its own business – disrupted by a start-up. Your entire industry can be transformed in the space of a headline. If your business cannot innovate, it won’t survive when the start-up in the garage across town, that doesn’t have to answer to your shareholders, does all the things your legal team has been telling you not to do, all the things that you overlooked. Even if you’re the market leader, your business needs to think and act like a start-up.
- Because you never know when the opportunity will come, start preparing today. In the movie “The Next 3 Days”, Liam Neeson plays an escaped convict. He tells Russell Crowe’s character to start working on the plan today to break his wife out of prison, because the chance will come when he least expects it. The same is true for business. If you start preparing today, when the opportunity presents itself for your business to take the gap, you’ll be ready when your competitor isn’t. And the prize will be yours for the taking. Of course, the leaner and more agile your business, the quicker you can take advantage of market changes, so this speaks to point 4.
- Doing the same things that earned you the Number 1 position yesterday won’t defeat your new competitors tomorrow. Markets change. To stay on top, you need to change with them. Economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke about the “perennial gale of creative destruction”, where technological transformation and visionary entrepreneurs give birth to new things that annihilate old things, only to see the next generation obliterate those new things. As a market leader, don’t think that you’re invincible. Some of the most well-known companies in history no longer appear on the Fortune 500 list, having tumbled from great to good to gone from the list—companies like Chrysler and Warner Lambert. And, out of the 500 companies that appeared on the first list in 1955, only 71 were still on the list in 2008. However, simply because the creative–destruction principle holds true for most businesses, does not mean that every company must inevitably fall and die. After all, companies like Johnson & Johnson, GE and Procter & Gamble have been around for over a hundred years and their positions in the Fortune 500 have climbed. The key is continuously adapting to changing customer needs and changing markets.
Sometimes the most valuable lessons are right in front of us, if we just take the time to watch what’s going on around us.