A few years ago, when I was just starting out with my copywriting business, I landed a new local client.
This client was paying a marketing consultant a hefty fee to promote their business, but that consultant wasn’t getting any kinds of results whatsoever, and was just costing the business money. So they came to me to turn things around.
At first, they had me edit the other consultant’s work in order to create better engagement with buyers. Then, they had me start crafting original material to promote their business – and my strategy worked.
Within about 6 months, I boosted their email open rate by 2.5 times, their click-through rate by 7 times, and their newsletter subscriber base by 4 times.
They were so happy with my work that they dropped the other consultant, and I became their primary marketing guy.
What I didn’t find out until later is that their other consultant was the most experienced and most well known copywriter in the entire region.
I’d only had about a year of professional writing experience, and yet I stole a client from a significantly larger and far more experienced competitor.
That was the moment that I actually started believing I had what it took to make it as a copywriter.
What I learned from this experience is that it doesn’t matter what the other guys are doing – if you know your stuff, you can carve out a piece of the market for yourself, even if you’re going up against someone with 20 years’ experience.
And this rule doesn’t just apply to freelancers – it’s true for businesses large and small.
A lot of people would rather think that the big guys are too strong to compete with directly, because that gives you a socially acceptable excuse for when your business ultimately fails.
But the truth of the matter is that if you know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter how big your competitors are. And it doesn’t take crazy cash reserves, powerful investors, or a national marketing campaign to run circles around the big guys.
All David needed to slay Goliath was a single, well-placed stone. For smaller businesses, that means being agile enough to spot new trends and move quickly toward them. It means spotting the critical weak points in your larger competitors’ plans, and exploiting them. The big guys might be 10 feet tall with crazy biceps, and maybe they can bench 300, but there’s a reason people say you should never skip leg day. (And there’s a reason why the big guys always do skip leg day.)
Back when I was a teenager, I used to do martial arts.
I studied a 3-style modern fusion program that combined traditional karate with modern self-defence techniques. My sensei was a fifth-degree black belt and a three-time national champion.
He was also short – like, shorter than me when I was 16 short.
And when I was practicing at that dojo, one of the big things we did was spar. We had sparring matches nearly every week, and I’d usually end up going up against all sorts of different people.
One lad that I frequently sparred against was big, tall, and lanky. Easily 6 foot 2, with arms that reached down to his knees. Guy had crazy reach with his punches and kicks. So when I went up against him, I had to be very careful not to get hit.
We’d get into the sparring box and start circling each other, and he’d throw out a few easy jabs and kicks to try to throw me off my game. And I’d have to stand at quite a distance to avoid being hit.
But going up against him, I quickly learned how to beat him at his own game.
Because he was big and tall with a long reach, he wasn’t at all prepared for someone to come in close and get a few hits in. So I’d wait for him to throw a kick or punch, quickly close the distance between us, get in two or three quick jabs up close, and then back out as fast as possible.
That’s the same style my sensei used when going up against bigger opponents, and for good reason.
When you’re going up against a larger, stronger opponent in a sparring match, you can’t ever hope to match them blow-for-blow. If you try to use a boxing-style attack, you’re going to get pummelled from every side. Like what happens in those UFC fights.
It’s the same story when you get attacked on the street (like I said earlier, this dojo was also big on real-world self-defence skills.)
When you go up against a bigger, stronger opponent on the street, you can’t afford to take a single hit. If your opponent lands a good blow, it could very well be lights out.
But the single most important thing my sensei taught me is that you don’t have to be big and strong. Not if you can be fast.
The thing about the big, strong guys is that they’re awfully slow. The fact that they’re larger means it takes more time and energy for them to move the same distance that a smaller person could cover. They’re slower to turn around, they’re slower to respond to new information, they’re slower to throw a punch, and they’re slower to recover when they take a hit – because they don’t expect to get hit at all.
And this fact is just as true in business as it is in martial arts.
It’s the reason why David beat Goliath.
The Old Testament tells us that Goliath was a mighty warrior. The Philistines, his people, considered him their national champion. He was somewhere between six and ten feet tall, and that he attacked and taunted the Israelites on repeated occasions. He wore 60 tons of armour, the texts say, and he was such an effective soldier that he captured the Ark of the Covenant, one of the Israelites’ most prized possessions and something they would’ve guarded quite closely.
The armies of Israel were powerless against him, until a young shepherd boy named David picked up a stone, loaded it into a sling, and struck Goliath dead.
The arrogant Goliath assumed that he couldn’t be defeated, and whenever I personally picture that scene, I can’t help but imagine Goliath looking at puny little David with his puny little stone and just laughing – that is, until he takes that stone to the face and falls over dead.
And there’s a very good reason why David chose to use his slingshot instead of getting up close and stabbing Goliath – it’s the same reason why, in my sparring match, I stayed out of my opponent’s reach until it was time to strike, then took my shot and got out as quickly as possible.
Pound-for-pound, you can’t match a larger competitor’s strength (their budget). So you have to learn how to be smarter and faster than them.
Your larger competitors don’t expect much of you.
They’re too busy focusing on their own objectives to pay you any attention, and that’s good.
While they’re busy with their national marketing campaigns and their big CRM overhauls, you can quickly execute micro-campaigns targeted at specific audiences – which is bound to be far more successful.
So if you want to run circles around a larger competitor, here’s how you do it.
Whatever you decide to do, do it fast.
When you’re going up against a larger competitor, they’re going to have you beat in four out of five categories.
They’re going to have a bigger budget. They’re going to have more talented and experienced staff. They’re going to have a larger workforce. And they’re going to have a farther reach.
But the one place where you have the advantage?
The larger the organization, the more bureaucracy it’ll have. And bureaucracy means decisions take longer and require the input and approval of multiple people at multiple levels.
Big companies are slow to adapt to new things. They’re slow to take notice of smaller competitors. And they’re slow to respond to threats to their business. But when that response comes (and it will come), it’s deadly.
So use your speed to your advantage.
Maybe these larger businesses are taking forever to turn work around, and it’s seriously pissing off their clients. That’s when you can come in and offer faster turnaround times.
Maybe there’s a new trend in your industry that’s just recently emerged, and the big businesses aren’t on board with it yet because they’re still analyzing the 4021 ways that switching to the new trend could be a terrible horrible, no good, very bad, awful thing for them. That’s when you adapt to the new trend and start rolling it out as a service package for all of your clients, new and existing.
Maybe the fact that the business is so large means it can’t offer a highly personalized service that clients want. That’s where you can create boutique solutions that clients feel are tailor-made just for them.
Use every available opportunity to showcase your creativity.
Large businesses are afraid of creativity. Real creativity is unrestrained and free. Real creativity is new and untested. Real creativity is dangerous to the status quo, because by definition, it rejects the status quo.
In 1968, a Swiss watchmaker invented the first digital watch. This watch ran on a battery, meaning it didn’t need to be wound up. It had very few gears, no springs, and no bearings. The large-scale Swiss watch manufacturers refused to develop the watch. After all, it didn’t look like a watch. It was new. Untested. It wasn’t until a small company called Seiko took a chance on the watch that digital watches became mainstream.
The larger businesses believe that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but they’re wrong. Creativity is how business advancements happen. Just because an idea is new and untested, that doesn’t make it a bad idea. So use your creativity to your advantage.
Tell your own personal story.
Large corporations are made up of hundreds or thousands of people, which is why most corporations don’t have a compelling story. Compelling stories are full of emotion and experience. Businesses don’t have emotions; people do. Corporations don’t have experiences; people do. People don’t relate to businesses; people relate to people.
That’s why people don’t have an emotional experience in response to ads; they have an emotional experience in response to stories. And your story is uniquely yours – it’s something no corporation can copy. So leverage your story to stand out in the market and give your audience something no corporation can.
Niche down and target a highly specialized market.
You can also make competitors less interested in you by focusing on a niche market. Large companies aren’t interested in niche markets because they tend to believe that niche markets don’t have very many buyers.
Try to come up with a highly unique approach to your market. Large businesses tend to be sceptical – and even fearful – of unproven models, so by making yourself and your approach unique, larger competitors will waste their time debating whether it’s even worth venturing into your niche instead of trying to drive you out.
Be quick to adapt to promising new technologies.
Just as large businesses fear creativity, they also fear new technologies. But ironically, new technologies can make an organization far more responsive to client and customer needs and provide unique new benefits that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
And while your larger competitors are busy having meetings about meetings to decide who will sit on a committee to evaluate who’s in a best position to decide who should figure out which new technologies should be implemented and what criteria they’re going to use to judge those new technologies, you can simply start using these new technologies and make it way more convenient for people to do business with you.
Always be ready to duck and cover.
If you’re using all of the above strategies, then eventually, your larger competitors are going to take notice of what you’re doing. They’re going to notice that you’re stealing away market share. And they’re not going to be happy.
Once a big business finds out that you’re taking its customers, it’s going to do everything in its power to crush you into dust. And if you wait for that day to come before you plan out how you’re going to respond, you’ll quickly find yourself blindsided, broke, and out of business.
So you need to have your Duck And Cover plan in place from the start.
But how can you expect your larger competitors to react once you start hurting them?
First, they’re going to try to sow doubt and confusion in the market. They’re going to start announcing new products, new projects, new services, and new options – whether or not those options currently exist. They’re going to start trying to get people guessing why you’re not up to date with the latest developments. So you need to make sure you’re on the cutting edge of innovation, presenting new options and new ideas to the market before your larger competitors can.
Next, they’re going to start trying to discredit you. They’re going to train their salespeople on how to pinpoint and exploit flaws in your offerings. They’re going to instil doubt regarding your reputation. They’re going to try to convince customers that you’re just a flash-in-the-pan, that your business is dying and won’t be around a year from now. They’ll try to paint you as unreliable. Or they might even try to sue you for patent infringement. So you need to make your customer service protocols and your sales material absolutely bulletproof – you need to build a proven track record of expertise and reliability.
If they can’t discredit you, they’ll try to flood the market with price adjustments, new ads, and new products. (Which is what we recently saw with WestJet when airline startup NewLeaf started offering super-cheap flights.) They’ll try to use big, shiny offers to win business back. Or they might even incorporate features you invented into their own products.
And when these attacks start, you need to be prepared to deal with them.
The best course of action is to simply delay the attack for as long as possible.
The larger your company looks on the outside, the more interesting you’ll be to larger competitors – so try to make it look to competitors as if you’re not doing a whole lot of business.
You’ll also want to have a variety of content assets prepared that address all of the concerns your competitors are going to raise, and position your solution as the best one.
Going up against a bigger competitor isn’t fun or easy – but a bigger competitor is expecting that they can easily crush you. By simply putting up a fight, your chances of winning go way up. And when you can pinpoint and exploit your competitors’ weaknesses, you can be fast and nimble – something larger businesses can never be.