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Being a Small Company Doesn't Mean You Have to Think Small!

Improve your small business customer service

Entrepreneurs and small business owners often face daunting odds trying to compete with larger adversaries to win over customers.

They are usually resource-constrained, have way less market awareness and credibility than existing market leaders. Yet many not only succeed, but end up carving out a niche of their own that they control. How do they do it? By focusing on what they have, not on what they don't. And just because they're a small company doesn't mean they have to think small.

In 2013, Malcolm Gladwell, renowned author and researcher published a book that should be required reading for all entrepreneurs - "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants." In it are critical lessons for how small beats big, fairly regularly, and for this post I'd like to use the three major points of Mr. Gladwell's book combined with some of my experiences to help you understand how you can leverage your size to achieve your own success. 

The advantages of disadvantages (the disadvantages of advantages).
Now we've all heard or read the story of David and Goliath and have possibly even used it as a metaphor for small being able to beat large. Yet, what we probably never understood was that, given the situation of a large cumbersome adversary vs. a smaller agile one, the smaller agile one, with the right circumstances actually has the advantage. Goliath wanted David to come to him to do hand-to-hand battle. But that would have been to play to Goliath's strength. Instead David stood his ground and, using his greatest advantage (his accuracy) fired his slingshot from a distance, dispatching the larger foe.

And what does an entrepreneur or small business owner take from this lesson? A couple of points:
  • Unconventional often beats conventional - find a way that fits your style as opposed to your market's or your competitor's.
  • Attack where your competitor is weakest - don't ever play to their strength; find the niche in the market where they have little presence and try to own it.
The theory of desirable difficulty.
Here, Mr. Gladwell uses several stories about individuals with some kind of personal handicap, like a learning disability, that drove them to higher success than they might have ever thought possible. In effect, he showed that the harder something is, the more effort people put in to succeed at it. And, we compensate for a shortcoming by becoming good at something else and use that to our advantage. For example, dyslexics often become tremendous listeners. Finally, radical or transformative thought goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention.

And the lessons for entrepreneurs and small business owners, here?
  • Don't concentrate on what you don't have, concentrate on what you have and leverage it, best you can.  Don't have glitzy marketing? Focus on personal touches.  Don't have all the feature or functions you need?  Focus on the service level you can provide.
  • Don't be afraid to "go against the grain" with your products or how you are viewed in the marketplace.  Be a maverick and challenge market status quo.
The limits of power.
The emphasis here from Mr. Gladwell is that when comes to power and authority, more is not always better and that there is a point of diminishing returns that is reached. So, in effect, the powerful are not always as powerful as they seem. Even market leaders have Achilles heels.

When it comes to exerting authority, people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard. The authority has to be exerted predictably, i.e., the rules today will be roughly the same as the rules tomorrow. And finally, the authority has to be fair, not treating any one group different than another.

And the small business lessons are both external and internal:
  • Despite how much market share a market leader may have, they don't do everything well.  Whether it's with follow-up or customer service, learn their weakness and try to exploit it to either win their customers over or prevent yours from moving to them.
  • Treat your employees as you would want to be treated.  Keep simple policies, but enforce them always and fairly.  Solicit their opinions. And listen. 
David and Goliath, both the biblical story and Malcolm Gladwell's use of it in his book about how underdogs, often, defy the odds and win, provides a perfect metaphor for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Being small can be leveraged into a positive and just because you are small you don't have to think small.

"The Entrepreneur's Yoda" knows these things. He's been there. May success be with you!

Have you had a David and Goliath moment that you won? Please share your thoughts in your comments. It can help another entrepreneur.

If you like this post, by all means, share it with your networks and colleagues.

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