It’s March Madness again and the excitement of small school, Cinderella stories has captured our collective imaginations once again. We’re a country founded on the underdog. We all dream of playing that underdog role and we root vigorously for anyone who succeeds in it. Which begs the question, what is the makeup of a successful underdog?
The great thing is that what makes a successful underdog in the NCAA tournament is the same thing that makes a successful underdog in business. So let’s examine the March Madness Cinderella makeup and see how it applies to a successful small business.
Play a different game
One of the first Cinderella teams that comes to mind is VCU. They made their name when they beat Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2007. While nowadays they are perennially ranked in the top 25 and their coach, Shaka Smart, is regarded as one of the best in the country, in 2007 they were an unheralded, Cinderella squad from Virginia. Smart knew he couldn’t recruit the blue chip players that went to programs like Duke, so he competed with a different style of game. He recruited athletic and eager players who were willing to play full-court defense for 40 straight minutes. They played high intensity, swarming basketball that most teams at the time were not used to. The result: VCU has been to the tournament six out of the last seven years, including a Final Four run in 2011.
In business it’s tough to compete with the Goliaths, especially when you try to play their game. Be different. When Twitter started, Facebook was well entrenched in most households. So instead of trying to build a Facebook replica (see MySpace), Jack Dorsey tweaked how people could interact. By limiting posts to 140 characters, Twitter found space in the social media world not yet governed by the incumbents.
Do something really well
This might sound like an obvious statement, but it’s often ignored. In 2010, the Butler Bulldogs made an unprecedented run to the NCAA Finals. While they may not have been the most athletic or the tallest team in the tournament, they were one of the most precise teams. They ran their offense with pinpoint accuracy, focusing on limiting turnovers.
While big companies have the benefit of greater numbers, deeper pockets, and a wider reach, that doesn’t mean they do everything best. With its technological expertise, Uber discovered that it could operate a pickup service more efficiently than taxi companies.
Be agile and adapt
Often smaller conference teams don’t have the athleticism or size to compete with the high profile schools. For this reason, those programs, like Harvard in 2013, have to adapt. Sometimes playing a four guard lineup offers advantages that normally wouldn’t be there.
You’ve probably heard of, if not used the photo sharing site Flickr. Did you know that this same company was originally created as an online multiplayer gaming company? What they discovered was that users enjoyed sharing photos on the live chat tool. Agile enough to react, the company pivoted and focused solely on the photo sharing.
Underdog success stories don’t happen by luck. By being innovative, focusing on your strengths, and being agile enough to adapt quickly, underdogs can pull off an upset. As they say, that’s why they play the games.