What basketball underdogs can teach business startups

  • With the right strategy and tech behind them, the underdog can be a winner.

  • Small companies need to get all the details right and keep everyone informed, or they'll be finished before halftime.

  • Larger rivals don't need to know every detail of a startup's innovation to neutralize the splash it might make in the market.

We have yet to see the ultimate black swan of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship: the day a team seeded at No. 16 beats a top seed.

No. 16 seeds, the lowest in this big collegiate basketball tournament, typically come from smaller schools, with less brand recognition, smaller budgets, and less sophisticated organizations behind them. Yet they hit the court anyway, hoping to have put together the right tools and talent to knock off a mathematically superior opponent.

In men’s Division I college basketball, these clashes happen only four times per year. In the business world, little takes on big all the time  and with the right strategy and tech behind them, the underdog can do better than just having a single-digit loss to be proud of. Here are the keys to victory:

Play mistake-free ball

A lot of No. 16 versus No. 1 games start with the tantalizing hope of an upset. The No. 16 team plays sharp, while the favorite hangs back. The underdog builds a modest single-digit lead, and for a few minutes, it looks like this might be The Game. Then the underdog commits a crucial turnover, and the floodgates open. The favorite takes over, goes on a 12-2 run, and the game is over but for the shouting.

It’s the same in business. Smaller companies can start out looking more nimble than their enterprise opponents. But if they make just one mistake, the superior firepower of the larger rival edges them out. Small companies need sharp focus on execution excellence. From quality control to fulfillment, small teams need to get all the details right and keep everyone informed, or they’ll be finished before halftime.

Use the element of surprise

A No. 16 will never beat a No. 1 playing conventionally. It takes underrated strengths and a cunning game plan that exploits weaknesses in a way the favorite didn’t anticipate. If that game plan leaks, however, the favorite will close enough gaps to earn the expected win.

Security breaches can send the value of carefully groomed intellectual property plummeting to zero. Every company, no matter what its size, has to protect its information assets with the utmost care. Larger rivals don’t need to know every detail of a startup’s innovation to neutralize the splash it might make in the market. Protect the network, and protect the element of surprise.

Capitalize on injury

Top seeds typically have a superior starting five and know how to rotate through talent on the bench. But sometimes, the loss of a key contributor at an unexpected moment can create an opportunity for the opponent. It would certainly be easier for the underdog if the favorite lost its best player at tipoff. The win counts either way, because there are no style points.

Nor does style count in business. Smaller rivals need to pounce on a moment of weakness to get ahead. Social listening can paint a picture of how tides of public and expert opinion may be turning on a market leader. Mobile technology ensures that the entire team can collaborate on these windows of opportunity, which can close quickly.

Win over the crowd

In the first few minutes of a game, it’s easy to root for the underdog. As the final horn approaches, people like to side with a winner. That’s why it’s so important for upstarts to connect with the audience and earn their loyalty early in the first half.

Engaging apps and voice platforms show that a company wants to hear from customers and values their input. Crowdfunding and collaborative design give customers and prospects a chance to take part in the creation of the next big thing that can turn today’s startups into tomorrow’s leaders — and send the top seed home early, wondering where it went wrong.

Jason Compton is an internationally published writer and reporter with extensive experience in enterprise technologies, including marketing, sales, service, and collaboration. All opinions are his own. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.

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