What Muhammad Ali Teaches Us About Startups and Entrepreneurship

Back in the 1970s, I loved boxing. My favorite boxer was the magnificent Muhammad Ali but I also liked Joe Frazier for the grit and George Foreman for the sheer power. (Yes, I watch a lot of ESPN Classic).

Of course the magnetic personality, bravado and skill of Ali drove the sport’s popularity. Fights like the “Thrilla in Manila” and the “Rumble in the Jungle” were some of the most exciting sports events in history, and they played out on a world stage. When Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in 1965 and George Foreman in 1974, he truly shocked the world.
Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston

Although sports analogies may be a little played out (forgive me), I think that the story of Ali’s success has a lot of parallels in business today.

As an entrepreneur, I root for the underdog and I want to hear a great story. Remember that Ali, even though he was world champion several times, was a huge underdog to opponents like George Foreman.

I firmly believe that there are a number of relatively easy ways that smaller businesses can beat big competitors to the punch, just like Ali did when he felled Liston and Foreman.

EXTRA: You TOO can “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”!

So here goes…

Find Your Best Punch

Ali’s best punch was the jab. He used it to wear an opponent down and, more importantly, to frustrate them at every turn. For instance, after being peppered by jabs and slipped every time he charged during their first fight, Sonny Liston simply quit. George Foreman punched himself out because he was so frustrated that he couldn’t knock Ali out.


I think a good parallel in business is Amazon. Amazon has crushed a number of big competitors. When Jeff Bezos started his little bookstore in 1995 (can you believe only 20 years ago?), he had one devastating punch. Bezos developed the platform that essentially pioneered online shopping.

Amazon started with suggestive selling (customers who bought this) and ease of ordering (1 click). I don’t know about you, but I’m powerless against this one-two combination. Amazon knows what I want before I do!

Now Amazon dominates cloud computing with Amazon Web Services. AWS could prove to be a true knockout punch.

Counter-Punch, But Still Go For The Knockout

Even when Ali was getting bashed on the ropes by George Foreman and bludgeoned by Joe Frazier, he was still always thinking he would knock them out eventually.

Muhammad Ali

Although you wouldn’t know it from the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali was normally a devastating counterpuncher.

Unlike some fighters (yes you, Floyd Mayweather), though, Ali wasn’t just looking to counterpunch all the time. Floyd, we get it…you’re probably the best defensive fighter in history. Well, your fights would be a lot more exciting and I might watch them if you actually hit someone!

Although using only defense may win an entrepreneur a “decision” at times, it’s really BORING and usually ineffective against a big rival long term. In other words, playing defense without a good offense can be suicidal for an entrepreneur.

As a smaller business, you should always be driving for an innovation that will knock out the competition or at least deal a serious shot.

For example, Workday dealt on-premise human resources (HR) software vendors a crushing body blow when they combined cloud computing with in-memory analytics. Ouch…take that Oracle! Now you’ve got more to worry about than just #1 SAP.

Unleash The Phantom Punch

Even though boxing historians such as Paul Gallender agree that Ali’s first round knockout of Liston in their second fight in 1965 was a dive, in some ways it hardly matters to the legend of Ali.

At 45, Liston was more than twice Ali’s age at the time – so his time was essentially done anyway. The “phantom punch” changed boxing history forever because it paved the way for Ali’s rise. Plus, no one saw it coming.

The rise of Uber is the business equivalent of an upstart champion with a phantom punch. If there was ever a need for disruption in an old school industry, the taxi cab market was it. Until the last few years, you didn’t even have an option to pay electronically in many cabs. They came when they wanted to, and only if the virtual monopoly cab companies had someone working in your area.

Now Uber has delivered the relatively simple “killer app” that has revolutionized the taxi cab market. Not only has made our travel easier and more convenient, it has spawned massive employment for entrepreneurs using their own cars to make a good living. How’s that for a “haymaker?”

Right now I’ll bet there are about 200 million people in the U.S. who’ve thought “Geez…why couldn’t I think of that?” Well, fortunately you could still create your own killer app. And your time to knock out the old guard is NOW!

Always Keep Punching

Against Frazier, even though he was quote “near death” and under relentless attack, Ali kept on punching. With the possible exception of the Foreman fight, Ali always stayed busy with his punches.


A parallel in business is Facebook. Although Facebook has many strong competitors in social media, they always manage to punch back and use their size to lean in on their tough competitors.

For example, they recently introduced Facebook Premium Video Ads and Video Chat to strike back at Google’s golden goose – YouTube. There’s also Facebook’s Graph Search which, although I think it’s no real threat to Google’s market-leading search engine, has certainly got to be an annoyance. Like Mayweather’s jab, maybe. 😉

Facebook also turned back a challenge from Google+, which is essentially a dead social network except for some SEO value. Also, Facebook’s Instagram is formidable and growing in strength. If Pinterest doesn’t keep punching, they could be down for the count!

The Best Defense Is A Good Offense

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably heard the phrase “defense wins championships” or “the best offense is a good defense”. Although Ali was a good defensive boxer, his real defensive weapon was to keep opponents off balance with the jab. He would dance, dance…then BRAP – hit them squarely in the jaw with that magnificent punch.

My favorite “the best defense is a good offense” story is Samsung vs. Apple. Samsung started in the smartphone market as strictly a supplier to Apple for screen displays. Then they built the Galaxy to compete with the iPhone. To boot, the Galaxy ran on an Android operating system from Apple’s biggest rival – Google. ZAP!

When Apple countered by suing Samsung for patent violations (successfully, by the way), Samsung hit Apple right in the kisser again with a marketing campaign that attacked Apple’s biggest competitive weapon – the “cool” factor.

Everyone remembers the commercial where all the Apple faithful are waiting in line with their white earbuds for the latest iPhone. This young guy walks up with coffee for his parents who are the ones waiting, not him. ZOWIE! That one left a mark.

Then, to add insult to injury, this (suddenly cool) guy touches phones with another Galaxy to transfer files. We’ll never forget the look on the face of the poor lady with her white earbuds asking “When are we going to be able to do that thing?” on her (suddenly uncool) iPhone. It didn’t matter that probably no one uses that feature. Samsung had effectively shattered the Apple mystique with one punch.

Samsung stole Apple’s thunder by taking their personality, which is the same thing Ali did when he taunted opponents.

Make A Stand

When Joe Frazier taunted him about the Ali Shuffle and how he never wanted to get hit, Ali stood toe to toe and slugged. On the other hand, Mayweather simply avoids punches and comes back with relatively weak counters.

How many years has it been since Mayweather actually knocked anybody out? Answer: It’s 2011, the same year when I stopped caring about his fights!

Elon Musk is great example of making a stand. First off, he refused to be cowed by big defense contractors like McDonnell Douglas who laughed at his attempts to build inexpensive rockets with Space X. He even tangled with mighty NASA…and won.

Then he did it again with Tesla, defying the big car companies and fossil fuel giants. Ask yourself this question. If Musk could improve battery technology so he could get the price down and increase the range, would you ever buy a gasoline-powered car again? Exactly.

I for one can’t wait to get my hands on a beautiful, fast as hell, virtually maintenance free vehicle running on juice from my home outlets. And bonus – it’s basically zero emissions, and I want to be green. Imagine how many big corporations would be on their heels if we had a Tesla model as a viable choice in our price range. BAM!

I love to have real discussions with people around these posts and ideas, so if you’re interested in talking, use the below avenues to get ahold of me. 


Dan Aldridge is the founder and CEO of Performa Apps – Manufacturing ERP Software Consulting, an enterprise software consulting firm specializing in Infor Global Solutions and Microsoft Dynamics AX. Dan is the founder of Inforln.com, a new community for enterprise software enthusiasts, consultants and manufacturing executives. As an Infor LN consultant and ex-Baan ERP consultant, Dan is a vocal evangelist for the “Baan culture” and manufacturing ERP software in general. He has over 20 years of experience as an ERP consultant, project manager and financial analyst. Dan has helped dozens of manufacturers with their ERP software implementations; Carrier, Siemens, Mercedes Benz, Snap-on Tools, Blue Bird, and Flex (formerly Flextronics) to name a few. His wonderful wife, two boys and two dogs help him remember what’s important every day.

Connect with Dan Aldridge on LinkedIn, Twitter @danaldridge1, WordPress and e-mail at dan(dot)aldridge@performaapps.com.

I'm an Enterprise Software blogger, ERP enthusiast, CEO of Performa Apps and Founder of InforLN.com. Love the NFL, basketball, manufacturing, ERP software and charities. Movie fanatic. Total nerd and computer geek. Love gadgets, but like some old school things like a good book. Fan of small business. Believer in the power of social media. Washington, DC native that can't stand politics.

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Posted in Creativity and Writing, Entrepreneurship and Startups, Leadership, Social Media

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Dan Aldridge
Follow Dan Aldridge on Twitter @danaldridge1
Reston, VA
Dan Aldridge

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