Borrowing a soccer strategy to displace an entrenched market leader

I used to play soccer (or—as everyone outside the US calls it—football), often playing the position called a Sweeper. Basically, the Sweeper is a bit of a Special Ops defender whose job is to thwart any attack, seize the ball, and clear it up-field to the his Strikers so they can score. As a Sweeper, I “played the ball” over-powering attacks by smaller Strikers. This approach worked nearly all the time, except for when I encountered the following scenario…

Four attackers advance in a loose arrangement. The Sweeper charges forward to attack and one yells out, “Form a square!”

Two attackers jog right; two left; two advance forward; two stay back. In seconds, they have formed a square around the Sweeper.

As the Sweeper charges one attacker he passes the ball to another. The Sweeper runs to the next attacker; but he passes again (never diagonally across the square). At the same time, the whole square advances forward.

The poor Sweeper is now chasing the ball where is was–vs. is. The only way he can counter this is to call back the fullbacks and mid-fielders. This takes time—and occupies half the team.

The only time I was able to defeat the Square without calling back half my team was scaring one of the attackers enough to fumble, stop, and engage (instead of passing the ball to the next corner)…

Using this strategy to “Square” an entrenched competitor

Small, agile companies can apply this strategy to outflank and outmaneuver an entrenched market leader: “Squaring the Market” instead of the Sweeper. Instead of physically forming a square around the market leader, you dominate under-serviced niches that define the boundaries of all ends of the market. Once you have done this, you have “surrounded” the leader and can attack “head-on”—from a position of strength. Here is how it works:

Step 1: Find the under-serviced niches that “corner” the market

Market leaders tend to focus on “mainstream” customers. These customers do not test the extremes of their product, letting them easily scale a one-size-fits-all solution. However, it under-serves more challenging “edge case” customers, leaving niches open for you and exposing weaknesses in the market leader’s product for you to exploit.

Look for underserved market niches that form the “corners” that “surround” your market, then assertively seize these for your own.

Step 2: Assertively seize undefended corner niches

Assertively seizing a market corner niche takes more than simply providing your product at an advantageous price. It requires active partnership.

Approach a respected customer in the target corner niche and offer to partner with them to ensure their use of your product will be a success:

  • The customer will teach you how to make them a success; in return you add—and support—changes to your product to do this
  • However, you will own this intellectual property of moving forward
  • Once you achieve predefined success measures, they will join you in speaking publicly about the success of your partnership

Your size provides the flexibility required for co-development partnership; the leader’s need to support many mainstream customers makes this impossible.

Step 3:  Keep moving, seizing the next corner until you surround the leader

Continue this approach, seizing one corner after another. Each co-development partnership will strengthen your ability to match different customers’ needs and provide strong case stories to encourage new sales. This is important because…

You will start to attract attention. The leader will go after one of your niches. However, because you formed strong partnerships in each niche, you will be hard to displace. In addition, because you are continually moving from one niche to the next, you will always be one step ahead. (The market leader is now a clumsy Sweeper, charging places where the ball no longer is.)

It is important to keep moving. If you stop, you will get caught a head-on fight with someone with fare more resources than you have. It is equally important to resist the urge to run across the square to mainstream customers. Until you have “Formed the Square,” you will not be strong enough to displace the leader.

Step 4 – After you have “Formed the Square”, attack inward

Eventually, after seizing all corners, you will have “surrounded the market,” You can demonstrate—with many customer case stories—that you can handle every extreme (i.e., corner) the market has to offer.

It is now time to attack the leader, winning over mainstream customers on the strength of your customer case stories and new partner-based innovation. This will take money (to scale marketing, sales and operations). However, as you now have many strong customer case stories, you should have far less problem getting funding to do this.

With lots of hard work, market leadership will follow.

Just keep your eyes out for someone trying to form a square around you.

This is Real

This is not just a soccer (or football) story. Apparel designers do this every decade to establish their brands. Whole Foods built an empire on this. displaced Siebel with the same approach.

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  • 14 August 2011

    […] time, people, teamwork and insight to make it better. (This is not only good for them, it is also a path you can use to establish market leadership). Co-development should be rewarded with your Maximum […]

  • 2 December 2014

    […] time, people, teamwork and insight to make it better. (This is not only good for them, it is also a path you can use to establish market leadership). Co-development should be rewarded with your Maximum […]

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