Underdog Businesses Must Work Harder

underdog businesses

Small business owners are almost always underdogs. They deal with competition from companies with much larger budgets and more resources at their disposal. So how can David compete with Goliath?

In a recent sit-down with Inc.’s Issie Lapowski, author Malcolm Gladwell explained:

“The choice you have as an underdog is: If you’re going to choose to fight and choose to fight to win, there are a series of strategies available to you, but they are all more costly than the strategies available to the favorite.”

Beating the favorite means putting in a lot of long hours and hard work.

To illustrate his point, Gladwell cited an example from a software mogul he knew who coached his 12-year-old daughter’s basketball team.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview in which Gladwell tells the story:

Gladwell says when his friend started coaching the team, they appeared to have no chance of winning. The girls were all devoid of any athletic talent. They were incapable of either the passing or the shooting that traditionally makes up a championship basketball team. But they ended up making it to the national championship anyway.


Gladwell explains that the team’s unique strategy was to play a full court press during the entire game. A full court press is a defensive strategy that requires minimum ability in terms of passing or shooting but prevents the opposing team from advancing far enough on the court to score. It was certainly an effective strategy, but not without its drawbacks.

“It requires, however, that everyone on your team expend maximum effort every minute of the game. You cannot loaf for an instant… Most people will not play that way, because it’s too difficult.”

But for underdogs, outworking the competition is often the only viable option, Gladwell explains. And the same thing can be said for the business world, he added.

Underdog companies that start out small and short of money and resources must often work much harder than larger businesses in order to successfully compete.

Gladwell says he often searches outside the business world for examples like his friend’s basketball team. But he says today business leaders are well able to understand and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Nowadays, Gladwell says, business leaders are just as likely to be focused on fields as diverse as social psychology and neuroscience, taking and applying ideas from anywhere to create a successful business.

It is a sign that business owners are working not only harder – but smarter when building their companies.

Image: Video Still


Annie Pilon Annie Pilon is a Senior Staff Writer for Small Business Trends, covering entrepreneur profiles, interviews, feature stories, community news and in-depth, expert-based guides. When she’s not writing she can be found exploring all that her home state of Michigan has to offer.

12 Reactions
  1. I think that one way to compete is to focus on a really specific market. Once you are able to choose a market that is so narrow, you’ll be able to attend to the needs of the market better and you will also get to make more sales without trying to compete so much with bigger competitors.

    • That’s a good point too! Finding a specific niche can definitely help set you apart.

  2. Great point made my Mr. Gladwell. Most SMBs that succeed do outwork their larger competition, but it is exhausting.

  3. Persis Shanker

    But you don’t outwork aimlessly. You still need to work smart and pace yourself. A lot of businesses want ‘instant success’ which is why they burnout and they don’t last the marathon. Besides finding a niche, it is important to work hard but go the distance by not burning out and to also leverage on other influencers and network and get your story out there. These strategies can help an SME/SMB give the bigwigs a run for their money because that’s how they started as well. Small.

  4. It can be simpler than that. We are playing a field with some pretty hard hitters yet have been able not only to survive but increase revenue and profit every year. How did we do that? Get advise from the right people: eSolve (http://esocap.com)