David and Goliath

I make writing software. You might love and rely on products like Draft (hopefully), but 99.9% of the people reading this have used Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Their products are ubiquitous.

My competitors are giants.

I loved Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It inspired people to be persistent. And now, Malcom’s new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which comes out today, will inspire a lot of Davids to take on their own Goliaths (I was sent a preview copy).

In the biblical story, David outsmarted the giant using a slingshot to strike Goliath where he was weakest. David was an unlikely hero. He got lucky.

But in Malcolm’s retelling, David’s chances were actually much better than I thought. Goliath was the underdog.

Why then did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that they were so good at?

Vivek Ranadive, CEO of TIBCO and coach of his daughter’s basketball team

Malcolm explores this topic with stories about a girl’s basketball team that was incredibly outmatched by their opponents, but figured out how to win by playing a game of basketball quite differently than their competitors.

And I didn’t realize the famous Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Cézanne) were complete losers.

Their peers ridiculed them. Art critics hated them. To be successful, they needed their work in the most important art exhibition in the world, the Salon. They tried and failed. But instead of continuing to waste their resources on this hopeless battle, they created a new game with their own rules: their own art show.

So many small startups try to play the same game using the same rules as the Goliaths they compete against. They put up the same looking websites. They make their about page sound just as large and corporate. They put up lists of features reaching for parity.

To accomplish anything of consequence in my life I keep coming head to head with some giant. When I started Inkling, there appeared to be enormous competition. The companies doing what I wanted to do - prediction markets - had been around for years. They had brilliant mathematicians and PhDs. The famous, de facto book on the subject, The Wisdom of Crowds, raised the name of our biggest competitor to the attention of millions.

But we picked on their weaknesses. We weren’t going to out-smart their algorithms, so we battled with ease of use. We couldn’t get more publicity, so we brought the battle to the search engine and focused on SEO and Google Ads.

We created a company that people didn’t think could compete, but quickly became profitable, outlived most of its competition, and is still growing today.

And I’m applying those same lessons to Draft. I can’t outcompete Google’s staff of brilliant engineers or outspend them on beautiful commercials. But I can provide services they don’t, like human powered copy-editing. Google’s founders have no interest in gathering a tiny bit of market share by teaching people how to write a better blog post or get more traffic on Twitter. But I do. And it’s working.

This isn’t easy, as Malcolm’s book confesses. But when you commit to fighting your Goliaths unconventionally, on a battlefield of your picking, your chances are much better than you thought.

P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter: here.

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