If you asked me to tell you a "Cinderella story" when I was little girl, with wide eyes and a huge smile, I would have enthusiastically romanced the fantastical transformation of a peasant girl to a princess, who was whisked off her feet, (literally and figuratively) by the fitting of a glass slipper. If you ask me that same question today, my story would begin with two words--
March Madness--delivered with the same wide-eyed conviction and huge smile. For there is no other reference in the history of sports that has the ability to conjure as much emotion, passion, drama, and absolute exhilaration than an NCAA Cinderella story.
Informally known as March Madness or the "Big Dance", the NCAA tournament has become one of the most famous annual sporting events in the United States. This past Sunday ("Selection Sunday") the NCAA tournament bracket was officially announced -which means teams were selected, seedings were set, and Vegas determined the odds. If you don't follow sports, then it's basically the rationale for office pools, long lunch breaks, live televised games in the lobby, and the flooding of people at sports bars and restaurants in the middle of the day.
This year, everyone is wondering, if someone can knock off Kentucky (the overwhelming favorite). And the entire country (except for the state of Kentucky of course), is hoping it's an underdog...a Cinderella Story.
Similar to the classic folktale, the NCAA has coined this term to be analogous to those underrated teams that defy seemingly insurmountable odds, overcome adversity, and win the hearts of spectators nationwide.
As a young or small business owner, you may currently be the underdog in your own industry, or feel like you play that role once in awhile when the odds are against you. As the NCAA reminds us this time of year of the power of the underdog that exists in us all, let's take a look at a few Cinderella stories in business that created their own unexpected upset.
- Ben & Jerry's vs. Haagen Dazs
Ben & Jerry's started in Burlington, Vermont, selling ice cream cones. Once they gained momentum in Vermont, they convinced larger distributors to carry their products alongside Haagen Dazs. When Pillsbury (Haagen Dazs' parent company) caught wind of this, they issued an ultimatum to distributors, and threatened to revoke their contracts if they sold both. Ben & Jerry's founders Cohen and Greenfield channeled their inner underdog, and launched the now famous "What's the Doughboy Afraid Of?" campaign. They took out ads in the Wall Street Journal, and in Rolling Stone Magazine asking readers to "help two Vermont hippies fight the giant Pillsbury Corporation." Greenfield even became a one-man picket outside the headquarters of Pillsbury in Minneapolis, handing out flyers that read, "What's the doughboy afraid of?" This strategy turned out to be the cherry on top for them! Today Ben & Jerry's has over $132M in annual sales.
- Apple vs. IBM
In 1976, IBM reigned supreme in computer sales and technology. Then two twenty-somethings named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computers by building 50 computers in one month by hand from a California garage. Today, with worldwide annual revenue in 2014 totaling US$182 billion, Apple is the most valuable tech company in the world.
- Zappos vs. all shoe retailers
Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh believed that his underdog company could one day reach $1 billion in sales, but in order to do so, he would have to change the company's operating model. Hsieh made a bold move when he abandoned drop shipping, which accounted for one-fourth of sales, in order to better control inventory and to put customer service first. By wowing customers with free shipping and free returns, Zappos today has $2 billion in annual sales.
- Disney vs. Hollywood
In the early 1920s, a little-known filmmaker and animator named Walt Disney began work on The Alice Comedies in his uncle's garage in Los Angeles. These films later became part of Disney's Alice In Wonderland, and today, the Walt Disney Company is the world's highest-grossing multi- media conglomerate in the world.
- Mozilla vs. Microsoft
When Mozilla's released Firefox 1, Internet Explorer accounted for about 95 percent of all browser usage. Mozilla employed about a dozen people, while Microsoft employed nearly 60,000 people. Today, Firefox is the world's third most popular web browser.
- Amazon vs. major book retailers
In 1994, Jeff Bezos ran his new bookstore, Amazon.com, out of his garage in Bellevue, Washington, just as people began migrating onto the Internet and before many competitors had created a strong e-commerce presence. Today Amazon is not just the world's largest online book seller, it is world's largest online retailer.
While the brackets in your own industry may be set, and the odds against you, as NCAA history has taught us, it means absolutely nothing. Like each team this year, you as a business owner get one chance to make your mark. Use this time to write your own history. And let your own Cinderella story unfold. In the end, you too will hear the commentator's famous words, "the glass slipper fits!"
In case you're interested...a few of the greatest Cinderella stories to get your adrenaline pumping:
- In 1985, Villanova (as an eighth seed in the tournament and arguably the greatest underdog champion in NCAA history) faced Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. Ending in a thriller, 'Nova hung on for a 66-64 win.
- 1983 N.C. State, became everyone's sentimental all time favorite, due to the tragic yet inspiring story of coach Jim Valvano. Beating the likes of Michael Jordan in a miraculous ACC Tournament win, Valvano's Wolfpack did exactly what he as their leader told them to do: "Survive and advance."
- Before Stephen Curry was the most exciting superstar in the NBA, he carried his college, Davidson, and put himself on the map in a 2008 Cinderella story.