Almost every industry has an 800-lb. gorilla--an intimidating corporation with a large international customer base, leverage over suppliers, powerful staff strength, and a deafening roar. It can seem impossible to compete, and suicide for a small start-up to try it.
That's exactly what Adam Rossi and his company Platinum Solutions did. When he and his wife started a software business in their spare bedroom, aiming to create security solutions for law enforcement, intelligence, and defense agencies, the biggest name in the game was Lockheed Martin. Rossi saw that this particular gorilla had some of the most lucrative contracts in the defense industry. He decided to build a business that could compete directly against Lockheed Martin and win. And then he did exactly that, again and again, for 10 years. Platinum Solutions had won contracts ranging from millions to billions in total value when Rossi sold the company to SRA International.
"Put things in perspective," he explains, "When you think about it, there is really very little to lose when you set your sights on your industry gorilla. You want to be the best in your industry, right? What is it going to take? Build your company into an organization that can credibly compete against the largest incumbent. Going up against the gorilla is just a natural step in your evolution, and losing is not the end of the world. You will probably earn admiration in your industry just for trying, and customers will take notice. When you win, even in just a small area, your employees will be energized, your competitors will respect you, and your company will never be the same."
Here are Rossi's tips for going to-to-toe with a massive competitor.
1. Go for the cake, not the crumbs.
"A lot of small businesses start off by subcontracting, supplying to, or distributing for larger competitors in their industry," Rossi explains, "It is a good way to grow your business, but be careful: If you take their money, they have control over you." When they began competing directly with Lockheed Martin for contracts, he received a subtle warning that his gorilla would "blacklist" Platinum Solutions as a subcontractor unless they stopped. But Rossi had taken no subcontracts and had no revenue from Lockheed Martin. So he had nothing to lose.
2. Move in ways the gorilla can't.
The big ape is strong, sure, but he can't move like a spider monkey. Rossi recalls, "I used to give every customer and prospective customer my cell phone number in case they needed to reach me for any reason, at any time. Lockheed Martin's executives just can't do that. It is a small thing, but it demonstrated how responsive we would be to the customer, how aligned we were with their mission, and that we would address issues immediately." Your company can move faster than the gorilla in many ways, with less bureaucracy and better customer service. Use that to your advantage.
3. Keep your cool.
Rossi shares a story: "I once took a tour of a government facility, and there was a sign on the ATM in the building that said 'For use by Government Employees and Lockheed Martin Employees Only.' It showed how much control and influence they had, a literal monopoly in many areas for years and years. I had to shut off that nagging voice of doubt and believe that their dominant position had bred complacency - a complacency I could exploit." It is easy to talk yourself out of competing before you even try. Instead, keep your cool and look for the vulnerabilities every organization has.
For example, a company with a monopoly or oligopoly position often has an angry, dissatisfied customer base. Those buyers want to see different offerings or alternatives. "No matter how good the company is," Rossi claims, "if they are the largest player in your industry, they are going to suffer from complacency and inefficiency. They dare not be disruptive in their thinking - because they will disrupt or cannibalize their own business!" Problems like that make these types of gorillas the easiest to compete against because you can show buyers how you can do better.
4. Live like you believe you can win.
Rossi believes that confidence is crucial, especially in leading a team. "Your confidence matters a great deal to your employees. If you give every indication that you personally believe - no, that you expect - to beat the 800 lb. gorilla, then your employees will feed off that energy and do the impossible with you. Show them that you are putting into place the people, processes, and products required to compete with the best in your industry. Reinforce that you have the better value proposition."
5. Take aim at one spot.
"A Fortune 500 company has a vast amount of resources at its disposal, but you don't actually have to compete with the whole company," he argues. "No company can bring all of its resources to bear effectively on any one customer, account, or contract. You are probably competing with a handful of players within the larger body. And not one of them cares as much as you do." You may not be able to compete for all of the fruit in the tree, but you can take enough to feed yourself.
6. Use the gorilla for cover.
"One of the interesting things that I learned in competing with Lockheed Martin is that when Lockheed had an entrenched position with a customer, many strong competitors stayed away." Rossi muses, "In a sense, Lockheed was acting as a shield. In our free-market economy, it is rare to find pockets of opportunities where some of the strongest competition stays away." Find these areas, use the gorilla for cover, and see if you can sneak in and win that customer.
7. Stay off the gorilla's radar.
Rossi's warning is clear: "The longer the gorilla dismisses you as a non-threat, or does not know you exist, the better. There is no need to badmouth the gorilla. It weighs 800 lbs. because it has done a lot of things right for many years." Instead of trying to make potential customers drop the gorilla, just quietly, clearly differentiate what makes your company worth trying. When you get a shot, over-deliver.