Does anybody remember when companies like Amazon were the little guys? Not long ago, brick and mortar retailers like Borders and JC Penney dominated the U.S. economy. Now with mobile devices and online platforms, innovative startups are conquering their fear and slaying established giants with increasing speed. Why?

I believe the secret lies in the philosophy of Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath.The book has been an inspiration to me as an entrepreneur, both professionally and personally. My goal with this blog is to share with you 3 relatively simple ways you can compete and win against larger rivals.

I’ve used examples of Amazon, Hubspot and Netflix to illustrate ways that small companies can use supposed disadvantages to win against much bigger competitors. People forget that these companies were once the Davids challenging established Goliaths. Gladwell’s spin on the David and Goliath story is that small companies or individuals can overcome weaknesses and triumph over large rivals if they change the game.

1) Change the Weapon of Choice

Many people know the epic Biblical battle story. When David first came of the crowd to challenge the mighty Goliath, the Jewish soldiers had a good laugh at his expense. How could this little shepherd boy stand a chance against the strength and weaponry of Goliath? Simple: a slingshot.

David: Amazon vs. Goliath: The “Big Box” Retailers

Do you remember when Amazon was a start-up? Jeff Bezos founded the company in 1995 and went live with Amazon.com as an online bookstore. Back then, I remember warehouse-style bookstores like Books-a-Million pushing the small bookstores to the brink of extinction. Venerable Barnes & Noble expanded to become the #1 bookseller in the U.S. The weapon these large chains used was to under-price their competitors, keep a deep selection of on-site inventory and provide amenities such as Starbucks to make them into a “destination”. Still, there was one big problem with the big chains at the time – they weren’t on-line.

Everyone knows what happened after that. As on-line shopping exploded in popularity, Amazon got better at delivering faster and making the buying process more user-friendly. Because they weren’t constrained by geography or the carrying cost of inventory, Amazon started to develop economies of scale with automated distribution centers that guaranteed just-in-time delivery. Who needed to go to a “big box” store when Amazon had a better price and free shipping?

The real slingshot, however, was the platform they created with the massive store of consumer data and the computing power to dominate cloud computing. The genius of innovations such as “1-click ordering” and the suggestion engine that tells you “Customers Also Bought This” makes you virtually powerless to resist. Borders has already fallen victim and big box retailers like Best Buy and J.C. Penney are bleeding a slow death. According to Wikipedia, Amazon has now become the world’s largest internet company. Amazon wins!

2) Pounce on a Weakness

According to Gladwell, Goliath told David to come closer because he probably had poor eyesight. At long distances he was essentially blind.

David: Netflix vs. Goliath: Blockbuster

Back in the ‘70’s we got our movies on VCR tapes from Blockbuster. It was lousy technology from a company notorious for lousy customer service, but what choice did we have?

Then along came Netflix with their crazy idea of offering DVD’s that you could get through “snail mail” (remember before e-mail?). Like Amazon, they recognized the power of creating a simple online platform with features such as ratings and prioritization to get your list to come in the order you wanted – not the order that Blockbuster got them in stock. Plus you didn’t have to deal with Blockbuster’s snotty clerks. 🙂

When you sent a DVD back in the mail, the next movie came “auto-magically” – with no late fees. What a concept! DVDs were not a new technology at the time, but the speed, availability and convenience of the delivery were an innovation. Netflix had a better idea and Blockbuster was too big, too slow and too arrogant to react in time. Game over, Blockbuster!

3) Don’t Fight on Their Terms

David wisely decides to stay at a distance from Goliath and use the slingshot instead of moving in close and fighting “hand-to-hand combat”, which he will almost surely lose.

David: Hubspot vs. Goliath: Outbound Marketers

When Hubspot debuted in 2006, they brought with them a new slingshot: Inbound Marketing. Founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah had recognized that the effectiveness of “invasive” marketing techniques such as television ads and telemarketing was declining dramatically. Legislation such as the CAN SPAM act and the “Do not call” list were killing hand-to-hand combat techniques like cold calling and e-mail “blasts”. Hubspot wanted to turn the traffic inwards so that customers would come to them rather wait to be hunted down.

Most of the tools that Halligan and Shah proposed for the new battleground – SaaS, sales automation, SEO, analytics, etc. – weren’t new. Sure, they did add a few new features like a “website grader” that ranked clients’ websites against competitors in terms of SEO and lead generation potential. The real competitive advantage, though, was how they used the weapons together and how they could amplify the power of their marketing content using social media.

In addition to the Hubspot SaaS software, the company created a Hubspot blog and a number of on-line resources to learn how to blog, build organic SEO and combine inbound techniques with minimally invasive outbound techniques like e-mail “nurturing” to move prospects gently through the sales funnel. Then they used social media such as Twitter and YouTube to go viral and spread positive word-of-mouth quickly. On this battlefield they could run rings around their slower competitors without the need for expensive armor.

The analogy I like to draw is that Hubspot used many different types of slingshots and cloned an army of Davids to shoot at the plodding outbound marketers from all angles. The result? In eight short years, Hubspot has grown from two MIT professors and $500K of Dharmesh Shah’s own seed money to $77 million in revenue in 2013, up 48% from the previous year. They have raised $100 million in funding from sources such as Sequoia Capital and Google Ventures. These guys are no dummies!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog and have drawn some inspiration that even though your business may be small, it still can be strong. If you are involved in a start-up or your company is in growth mode, I invite you to check out my blogs ‘3 Surefire Ways to Take the FEAR Out of a Startup‘ and ‘3 Simple Ways to Avoid an IT Project Disaster‘. More blog posts are available at our InforLn.com Blog on our new website inforln.com.

There’s an amazing TED Talk by Malcolm Gladwell where he explains the unheard story of David and Goliath. I’m sure you’ll find it inspirational. If you have any similar stories about ways to turn small into POWERful, in business or personally, I hope that you will share them with me by leaving a comment. If you would like to contact me directly, I can be reached at dan(dot)aldridge@i-app.com.

Posted by Dan Aldridge

Dan Aldridge is the CEO of Performa Apps, an ERP software consulting firm specializing in Infor LN and Baan. Dan has almost 20 years of ERP implementation experience. He has helped dozens of companies with their ERP software implementations and training including Carrier, Mercedes Benz, Snap-on Tools, Blue Bird, Flextronics and a host of other manufacturing companies. He is a serial entrepreneur and blogger with his new site inforln.com.

You can reach Dan on e-mail at dan(dot)aldridge(at)i-app.com or on his social networks: About.me,LinkedIn,Twitter,Google+,Scoop.it,WordPress, Slideshare,PinterestandFacebook. His company Performa Apps is onLinkedIn,Twitter,Facebook,Google+, YouTube, Scoop.it, Slideshare and i-app.com.