A career in business journalism may not sound that entrepreneurial, but for me it was good preparation. Corporate strategy was much in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s, with a new focus from business schools, executive suites and newly minted strategy gurus. During these years, I interviewed hundreds of companies, spoke to academics, lunched with management consultants, attended seminars and faithfully read each flavour-of-the-month strategy book as it rolled off the press.
I gradually discovered what a rare thing real strategy is in the business world. Brilliant exceptions exist (more so among entrepreneurs than corporate titans), but wading through all the flow charts, lofty but vague goals and regurgitated mission statements rarely produced that aha! realization of encountering a clear strategy. Somehow the essence—the central hypothesis on how to achieve the goal—gets lost in an increasingly complex strategic process.
For a purer understanding of strategy, I gravitated to military examples. Corporations can hide a bad strategy (or no strategy) for years while market realities gradually erode them (General Motors being a recent example). Military battles, on the other hand, tend to be over more quickly and the superior strategy revealed. A good military strategy can usually be articulated in a phrase or sentence of crystal clarity. Take Carthaginian general Hannibal's "envelopment" of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, which eliminated the Romans' superiority in numbers by forcing them to use only a small portion of troops at any one time. U.S. General Schwarzkopf's "left hook" strategy used in Desert Storm in 1991, bypassed Iraqi defences in Kuwait and went straight for the Iraqi homeland, ending the war in a matter of days.
But whether the example is military, business, the martial arts or simply a good chess game, the guiding principle of a good strategy boils down to this simple rule: bring relative strength to bear against relative weakness. In the 1920s, a British military theorist, Liddell Hart (who happened to be another journalist), articulated this principle further in a famous work called Strategy. In it, he developed the theory of the "indirect approach" and analyzed how military commanders through the ages—including Alexander the Great, Cromwell and Napoleon—chose the line of least expectation and struck at the point of least resistance.
At least, that's what they did when they won battles. When these strategic superstars lost, it was usually when they reverted to the "direct approach"—attack where the enemy expects and where they have concentrated strength. Napoleon's Battle of Waterloo was an example; and much of World War I was fought this way, with armies sacrificing thousands of lives for mere yards of ground.
The indirect approach comes naturally to most entrepreneurs because we typically take on larger competitors that have infinitely more resources. Success for SMEs means finding a chink in their armour (relative weakness) and concentrating our relative strength precisely there. Such is certainly the case with my own firm, Inbox Marketer. Our competitors are multinational marketing services, companies such as Experian and Axciom. The chink in their armour is customer service. We can go to much greater lengths serving our 60 corporate clients than they can their thousands, and we make this count as much as possible.
That's what works for our customers, which are mainly Fortune 500-sized companies. But as more marketing services companies jump into digital messaging, competition gets stiffer. These companies aren't just better connected to Fortune 500 companies, they are Fortune 500 companies in their own right and have contacts at executive levels that we can never hope to have. Although we continue to grow in this market, the changing competitive conditions are a clarion call to retune, consider new strengths, look for new weaknesses and find new markets.
To this end, we decided several years ago to "productize" our business by building a digital messaging platform that does for mid-sized businesses what we perform as a service for larger companies. We're taking this indirect approach because our giant competitors don't defend this territory as strenuously, since the size of the accounts tends to be smaller. However, there are many more of these mid-sized companies than big corporations, and they tend to be more hands-on. Our reasoning is that once we build strength here, we can re-address the corporate market with product sales and come at our competitors in a flanking move.
When formulating this strategy, I did find one business book essential. Check out this must-read and why I think it was so helpful.
Read more columns on the End Game by Randy Litchfield.
Randall Litchfield was the editor of PROFIT from 1986 to 1990 and has been an entrepreneur ever since. He is most recently co-founder of Inbox Marketer, an email marketing services firm and four-time member of the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada's Fastest-Growing Companies.