Why Being an Underdog Entrepreneur is a Plus

We’ve all heard the tale of David versus Goliath. The story, as it has been told for nearly 3,000 years recounts the improbable victory of David, the shepherd boy, over the giant Goliath.

The Original Underdog

In case you’re not familiar, this confrontation, which may or may not have occurred sometime in the late 10th century BC, was an epic battle between two warriors. Goliath was the 6-foot-9 Philistine warrior clad in armor; clutching a sword, javelin, and a spear. None of the Israelites want to do to battle with this behemoth. Except David, the young shepherd boy. Armed with only a slingshot and a few rocks, David topples the giant before beheading him. As a result of witnessing this malay the Philistines flee in horror, leaving us with the timeless tale of the underdog.

Everything We Know is Wrong

In his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell sets out to show us that we’ve been misinterpreting the role of the underdog. In Gladwell’s estimation David’s perceived limitations, size, weaponry, armor, actually gave him the upper hand. Similarly the criteria that established Goliath as the favorite may have contributed to his eventual demise. As Gladwell points out, Goliath may have been suffering from acromegaly, which causes you to grow and restricts eyesight.

If we were to reframe the story we could say that an oversized warrior with poor vision and little agility was matched against a young, quick kid who just so happened to be a slingshot sharpshooter. If we look at it this way, David doesn’t quite fit the underdog mold.

The Underdog has the Upperhand

The story of the underdog is not reserved for the bible. It plays out in sports all of the time. From the outside looking in an undersized, inexperienced basketball team doesn’t have a chance against a perennial powerhouse. But, if the underdog out-hustles their opponent, using their own confidence against them, they have the potential to prevail.

This is also true in the business world. A company with a hefty share of the market, armed with a limitless marketing budget, and loads of venture capital might become complacent. Their success could become an obstacle they must overcome. Conversely, the new bootstrapped, agile startup down the street is dead set on disrupting the market so completely that the big players are turned upside down.

In the business world David is the startup, the entrepreneur; and innovation, technology, and nimbleness his slingshot. While Goliah, the lumbering giant, is trapped in the past clinging to misconception that they can squash the little guy.

When Weaknesses Become Strengths

Playing from behind, working your way from the bottom to the top might actually be an advantage. You’re not on anyone’s radar. You’re honing your skills in the background. You’re able to strike when you’re ready. Disadvantages may work in your favor. Consider this, a number of highly successful CEOs and entrepreneurs have a learning disability.

In his book, Gladwell devotes a chapter to exploring this topic. As he puts it:

A much larger percentage of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic than in the general population: Richard Branson, Paul Orfalea, Charles Schwab, John Chambers at Cisco, David Neeleman at JetBlue. And if you talk to them, they will explain to you that they don’t think they succeeded in spite of their disability. They think they succeeded because of it.

Given these insights it’s best that we view the underdog title as an opportunity to innovate and even shine, instead of seeing it as the reason we write ourselves off.

What are your thoughts about being the underdog in business?

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