When you're no longer the underdog

Growth is nothing to be afraid of. Just remember your values and walk the walk.

We all know the underdog can come out on top: David toppled Goliath with a single hit. But as Canadian journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell shows in his typically counterintuitive fashion, the original myth of the improbable victory by a weak party over someone far stronger isn’t quite as it seems.

The result of the David and Goliath fight wasn’t a miracle, but rather what happens when the weak refuse to play by rules set down by the strong. Goliath was a giant, but he was slow, clumsy and probably half-blind, and David was a practiced marksman with a sling.

Whatever your view of Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, I’ve certainly learnt through my experience of setting up and running The Social Innovation Partnership (TSIP) how apparent disadvantages can turn out to be advantages, and vice versa.

As Gladwell writes, being an underdog "opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable". 

Our small business strength is the ability to think and act outside the box; we understand our customers’ needs and can react quickly to implement change.

But then, reading Gladwell some way into this project, I began to think: what happens when your small business begins to grow and you no longer identify as the underdog?

Knocking around the evidence scene for five years now, and of a reasonable size in relation to our competitors, I’m beginning to experience the push and pull of people, money and resources on the one hand, and creativity and agility on the other. I want to keep our advantage over Goliath but also add to our sling a greater number of weapons should we come up against a different kind of adversary.

Here are my tips for playing to your small-player strengths, while taking on characteristics perhaps more familiar among larger competitors.

1. Don’t forget the business basics

We waited far too long to create our communications and HR functions; do this early. Apply the 80/20 rule, where 80% of your outcomes come from 20% of your inputs. Build reserves from day one. Some of the biggest companies in the world have 10-15 year cash reserves to survive in the event of an economic slump; discard this insight at your peril. Overall, focus on sustainability and not handouts; be commercial while recognising the need for social good. Try to strike the right balance at all times.

2. Build from the top down and focus on people.

Find a chair and a board – one that is active and involved from the get go. Their relationships and knowledge will help you punch above your weight in the early days, acting as a strategic sounding board as you begin to mature.

Create structure around this board and give them a stake, both in the purpose of what you do and potential upside of your social enterprise becoming a success.

When it comes to establishing a senior team, natural instinct leads us in search of young, smart, inexperienced but high potential people who will help lead the charge. Their energy and hunger to learn will be crucial to success but you also need old hands on deck.

Mark Zuckerberg fought hard to get Sheryl Sandberg to join Facebook for example and Google secured Eric Schmidt. Having experience in your senior management team could be the difference between doing good and doing great. Everyone is trying to learn and grow but some have learnt ahead of you and want to share their knowledge.

3. Grow reluctantly, as a wise man once told me 

They all come knocking once you're on to something – the laggards, competitors, old leaders and new. I've learnt the hard way that saying no is just as important as saying yes. It's how you do it – with dignity, and leaving the door just a tiny bit open in case you ever want to pass back through it in future.

But don't lead people on; if you know it isn't going to happen - the moment has past or it doesn't feel right - just say. You and they will sleep better for it.

A few key strategic partnerships where you share the same values and aims will also serve you well, allowing you to expand to reach new audiences while keeping your unique offer.

4. Focus on values

In 2014, I completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses programme, which among a great many other things taught me about the importance of organisational values.

Don't just dream them up and inflict them on your team – make sure they are co-produced. Hold open sessions, allow the ideas to flow, use a SMART process to whittle it down to the three or five that represent your company, and define them clearly.

You then need to wire the values into the DNA of your organisation – something we’re still trying to improve, day in and day out. Build them into product or service development, HR, performance, and client and partner selection, and try to make every conversation a values driven one.

Points of disagreement and paralysis should be solved by using your values as a point of reference. If your work is transactional, you might think do I need a relationship with my customer? Trust me, you do – even if you never see them, think about them because rest assured they are thinking about you.

5. Keep balance and encourage it in your organisation

Like any social entrepreneur worth their bit, I threw everything into getting TSIP started. Five years later, I’ve learnt the need to keep balance as a leader and to encourage this across the team, too. Lead by example – admit your failures but always stay positive.

Finally, find a way to delegate. It's a perennial bugbear of mine, but all I can say is: let go. If this means locking yourself out of your email or disappearing into the jungle for a month, do it. You and your team no doubt deserve it.

Take what you will from my views and experiences. I’m still learning from the David and Goliath myth that more isn’t necessarily more, but that sometimes you have to play by rules set down by the strong.


Photo credit: Metropolico.org