Strategies of the Underdog

It is exceedingly rare to have absolute advantage.  Rights to a gold mountain that sits above ground with easy transportation in and out and low cost labor is just a fantasy.  Everyone competes in a series of dimensions, where they have some comparative advantages and comparative disadvantages.  It is important to know what you are good at and not shy away from those dimensions where you don’t have the natural upper hand.

John Irving is one of my favorite authors, not only because he is a wrestler, but because he gets that everyone is the underdog in some dimension and it shines through in his books.  He often talks about it and was described in a Salon.com  interview introduction; “it was John Irving’s high-school wrestling coach, Ted Seabrooke, who told him that ‘talent is overrated. That you’re not very talented needn’t be the end of it.’ Seabrooke also told him: ‘An underdog is in a position to take a healthy bite.’”  I have never seen John Irving wrestle, but I bet he had comparative advantages to go with his relative lack of talent.

I was a competitive wrestler in high school and can relate to the Seabrooke quote.  By my senior year I did well, with most pins on my team, a runner-up finish in the NY State Prep tournament and an upset of the number one seed at the Prep Nationals.  I find that what I learned wrestling are the same exact strategies we implement at NCI:

  1. Focus counts.  You can’t be better than everyone at every move.  I had a great single leg take down, a good escape routine and lots of pin routines.  I did not try big throws, I did not “scramble”.  Being much better at a few things leads to wins.
  2. Hard work pays off.  If I had to bet on any two wrestlers, I would put my money on the guy who spent more time training.  Fitness usually beats talent.
  3. Efficiency is key.  Wasting a ton of effort on a poorly set-up move or a position of limited leverage just tires you out.  It does not score points.

At NCI, our Apartment Finder brand is a great example of an underdog with comparative advantages.   We are significantly smaller than our competition both on line and in print.  We have less overall cash flow to invest back into this line of business than either For Rent or Apartment Guide.  But even as the underdog, we are busy taking our “healthy bite”.  We know where we have comparative advantage: being vertically integrated our production costs are the lowest in the space, avoiding exclusive, expensive distribution gives us the lowest cost per copy picked-up, having a stable management team we have some of the most long-standing relationships in the industry.  So, how to tie wresting to apartments?

  1. Focus counts.  We know that our position in the market must be as the low cost, high value supplier. Everything we do must be around that equation – improving our relative cost per lead for our customers.
  2. Hard work pays off.  I would bet that the Finder team logs more miles per employee, more hours per week and more overall effort per advertiser than anyone in our space.  Relentless hard work will bear fruit.
  3. Efficiency is key.  We do not need to be the flashiest, we do not need to be the most innovative in all dimensions, we do not need to try daring changes that put our relationships at risk.  We can’t waste our energy on efforts that won’t score points for our customers.

I like our positioning in this market.  I like our strengths and I like knowing that we are the underdog.  I really like that my colleagues at NCI have that same fighting spirit.

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One response to “Strategies of the Underdog

  1. Pingback: Sammy and Comparative Advantage « Being Present

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