Think And Act Like The Underdog, Fast

The digital world means nothing can be taken for granted—whether you are an ambitious startup or an esteemed behemoth. What can you do? Be a disruptor.

Think And Act Like The Underdog, Fast

The Jamaican bobsleigh team, Harry Potter, and the Leicester City football squad are among Britain’s best-loved underdogs of all time, according to a new survey from betting company Ladbrokes. Underdogs aren’t just restricted to the worlds of entertainment and sport, however. Apple and, more recently, Under Armour are just two of many businesses that have outgrown the garage or basement where they were launched to disrupt an entire marketplace.

And the good news for business is that today’s digital world makes underdogs and potential disrupters of us all.

Reinventing Through Digital

Digital has transformed every sector, not just the tech market. It has brought about unprecedented choice of products and services, re-inventing and accelerating routes to market and distributions channels.

It has rewritten the relationship between product or service provider and end-user, revolutionising traditional consumer expectations and behaviour. And it has led to large, established players being forced to raise their game as they take on smaller, nimbler startups now able to compete on an equal footing.

Nowadays, underdog in business terms doesn’t mean just a challenger brand. In a digital world, nothing can be taken for granted—whether you’re a startup running on ambition or a legacy brand behemoth, digital disruption leaves no brand owner automatically favoured to win.

Take your eye off the ball, even for just a moment, and any business could find itself blindsided by the next Airbnb, Snapchat, Uber, or whoever the equivalent player will be that sneaks up unseen, then totally disrupts their market. This makes every organisation an underdog. So you’d better start behaving like one today.

Shifting Your Mindset

Underdog mentality is all about rethinking how things are done, and then doing them better. This means rethinking the products or services that a brand owner offers to its customers. But it also means rethinking the internal systems, structures, and processes that a brand owner needs to have to deliver them.

To act underdog, you’ve got to start by thinking underdog. And this begins by recruiting and then enabling the people who work for you to think and act the same.

Diversify Diversity

Hire against the grain. Diversity isn’t merely about race, sex, and geography. Businesses need a team comprising different cultural and geographical backgrounds to identify and reach unique solutions for an increasingly diverse and global marketplace.

Get this right, and a brand owner can benefit from a “diversity dividend,” according to a recent McKinsey study. Companies in the top 25% of racial and ethnically diverse businesses are 35% more likely to have financial performance above their industry’s national average, its findings show.

Top gender-diverse companies, meanwhile, are 15% more likely to outperform their industry’s national average.

So seek the kid who taught themselves to be the best coder on the planet or the shop clerk with the fashion sense of Anna Wintour. Recruit from outside your core industry to incorporate into your organisation those hard-to-find perspectives that ensure you’re not missing out on something.

Reverse Star Cultures

Underdogs don’t have prima donnas sitting in corner offices issuing orders from on high. Their management isn’t insulated but integrated to be part of the team.

This isn’t just about breaking down silos, it’s about smashing hierarchies. Make everything totally transparent, so that everyone knows they have a voice and that their ideas can—and will—be heard. In a digital world, business has become a team sport like no other.

Work Your Data Hard

Win with data. All too often, established market leaders barely scrape the surface, preferring to rest on their laurels rather than face the fact their product, service, or model is most likely ripe for disruption. But underdogs explore every angle and work their data hard to gain competitive edge.

Nike may have significant resources and a massive legacy, but last year’s strategic acquisition by Under Armour of health tracking apps MyFitnessPal and Endomondo gave it access to insight from a massive database of fitness users. A few months later, it was confirmed that Under Armour had overtaken Adidas to become the second-largest athletic apparel company in the U.S.

The Winner Takes It All

Focus on the prize. Underdogs figure out what’s most important to them and ignore the rest. A bit like Leicester City.

In its quest for the Premier League Championship, Leicester was able to focus on … well, winning the Premier League Championship because, unlike other clubs, it was not competing in the Champions League as well. Read the data and set the right objectives to stay focused on the prize.

Don’t Stop Moving

Finally, don’t hang about. Adopt the mentality of movement. No one in today’s fast-moving and rapidly changing marketplace can afford to stand still.

With markets now moving to the speed of technology and success dependent on innovation to both products and business models, disruptive brands able to change their consumers’ viewpoint on both the brands they buy and the marketplace are growing in leaps and bounds.

Not even the top underdogs can afford to sit on the backburner, however. For it’s no good to innovate just once or twice. Sustainable success will only come from continuous disruption, and to achieve that, you’ve got to start thinking like the top five most disruptive brands of 2015.

Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, Red Bull, and Snapchat topped Forbes magazine’s recent Most Disruptive ranking, and it’s easy to see why. All started small and agile. Each realised its ambition for greatness by underdog thinking and doing. And being restive not comfortable, questioning not complacent will underpin their ongoing success. Until the next underdog comes along.

See also’s recent interview with Seth Solomons, Wunderman CEO North America.