Competing with large corporations

Learn how your small business can compete with the giants in your industry.


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Published: March 21, 2012


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Hi, I’m Tegan Jones for the Wells Fargo Business Insight Series. Today, I’m here with Stephen Denny to discuss how small business owners can compete with the commercial giants in their fields. Stephen is a competitive strategy and marketing consultant and author of Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry. Thanks for joining me, Stephen.


Thank you, Tegan. Good to be here.


It’s great to have you here. You know, you always hear how big box stores are killing smaller businesses. So I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on how these independent business owners can compete. To start us off, I’d like to take a look at the assumption that large corporations automatically have the upper hand over their smaller competitors. Are there any disadvantages to being a larger business?


Sure. First of all, giants are great at starting things. By virtue of their size, they’re often at a distinct disadvantage though when it comes to local market knowledge because they often apply this sort of one-size-fits-all mentality. It’s hard for them to scale a local approach. So when we look at smaller businesses, particularly those with a more local focus, they can very often beat larger opponents in a lot of ways, not the least of which is their ability to, what I call, win in the last three feet. This was a core chapter in Killing Giants. Essentially, it allows them to maximize their own returns based on the giants’ investments. So a small business has to ask itself, how can I get the most out of what the giant is doing? What demand are they generating? How can I step in at the last second and steal that sale when they think the job is done?


And how can they do that? How can they leverage this advantage and steal those customers?


Well, you know, a key advantage that many of these giant killers have is their ability to, what I would call, shift time, turn a sprint into a marathon, or maybe a marathon into a sprint. When a giant launches a major campaign or a new product or whatever, they often — very often actually — they very often make this assumption at a certain point that the rest is going to take care of itself: the ad is placed, the product is shipped, whatever. And it’s in this slice of time between the ad placement or the product launch and when the customer actually walks out with the product in hand that that smaller company has an opportunity to introduce themselves and win in that last moment.


On the flipside of that, are there any tactics that business owners should avoid when competing with their personal Goliath? Or is everything on the table in this situation?


I think we need to understand the benefits and perils of head-to-head competition. There are places where head-to-head competition makes a lot of sense, and there are right ways to do it, as well as wrong ways. Customers are smart. At the end of the day, I think we have to admit that the people who walk into our stores and buy our stuff or go to our websites or whatever are bright people. They don’t like overblown rhetoric. And worse, and this is extremely important for a small business owner, your giant competitor has more lawyers than you do. So you need to be very careful here. However, you can be confident in one thing: you’re better when they say you are — they, meaning your customers. So letting them tell your story whenever possible is really very smart. And ways that you can put that opportunity in front of your customers to tell your story, I think, is time and effort well spent. No one sells a peer like a peer.


That’s great advice. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience today?


You know, we’re living in an age of big ideas, and this is good news. You may not have the budgets or the manpower or even the time that you had a few short years ago. But we do our best work under conditions of extreme constraint, and these are our constraints right now. If you can see — as a last bit of advice — if you can see what’s changed over the past three to five years in your customers’ lives, those structural shifts that have taken place from Smartphones to the rise of smart consumerism, social networking, care about things like carbon footprints, familiarity with self-help on the Internet, you know, you can see how you can re-imagine industries that have been long dominated by real giants. And I think that’s extremely inspiring stuff.


Thank you so much for your time today, Stephen. You’ve provided us with some really valuable insights.


Well, thank you. It was great to be here.


And thank you for joining us for this segment of the Business Insight Series. To learn more about how Wells Fargo Business Banking can help you, visit In the meantime, we wish you continued success.