David McWilliams: Football can teach small firms a lot about how to fight – and win – on your own terms
Published 04/12/2013 | 02:30
Somehow, and I am still not particularly delighted about it, my 11-year-old son is a Chelsea supporter. This is a difficult thing for any parent to accept, but when he came out – provocatively and flamboyantly – I had to bury my prejudice and embrace diversity.
In the modern world, although it doesn't feel right, if you were born in 2002 who else would you support? Success breeds success and the first highly successful Mourinho sojourn at Stamford Bridge has spawned a new generation of Blues.
As a result, the family has an outsized interest in how Chelsea does each weekend. This weekend they beat Southampton. This is interesting to any football fan because Southampton have been beating many, so-called superior, teams this year playing a form of football which is changing the terms of engagement.
Southampton have changed the game and its players are pressing and defending from the opposition's penalty area, harassing full-backs and centre-halves. Typically defenders have a bit of time on the ball if the opposition stands off. Southampton are not giving the opposition defenders that luxury and are instead pressing them far up the pitch. This is not unlike what Jack Charlton did years ago.
Southampton and Charlton's Ireland are great examples of fighting the battle on your terms, not on the terms the opposition set for you. If you allow the opposing team to dictate the terrain, the timing and the style of the battle, you are going to be on a hiding to nothing, particularly if the opposition are aristocrats and you are journeymen.
Southampton's Argentinean coach Mauricio Pochettino (incidentally from a town called "Murphy" in the middle of the Pampas after John Murphy who emigrated in 1844 from Kilrane, Co Wexford) figured out that he couldn't beat the big lads at their own game. Instead, he is playing football which suits his team rather than others. Southampton, despite their loss to Chelsea, are above Man Utd and Tottenham in the table.
We see this again and again in sport where a team changes the rules of the game, entirely legally, and influences the result simply by not doing what was expected of them.
Do you remember Pat Spillane's outburst against what he termed "puke football" – referring to the Tyrone tactic of swarm defence? What upset the Kerry aristocrats was the fact that Tyrone identified that Kerry's very strength, their effortless skill, was actually their major weakness and if Tyrone disrupted them and didn't let them play, Kerry wouldn't have any Plan B – or at least wouldn't be able to put the plan together in the cauldron of the match. It might not have been for the purists and it wasn't pretty but it was effective, very effective.
The tactic deployed by both Tyrone and Southampton is designed to disrupt the opposition, and capitalising on this very disruption is what generates results.
This is the essence of small business too. When we are faced with a large incumbent that appears unbeatable given our limited resources, the way to turn the tables is to disrupt, to upset and to fight on terrain that you identify rather than terrain that is identified for you.
Small businesses need to figure out how to change the rules, bend them, examining and targeting their opposition's weakness.
Sometimes the small guy is positively affected by what is termed disruptive technology. This is a technology which comes on-stream and changes the game. The internet and social media are one such technology. This is because they change the way in which we engage, the way we behave. These types of technologies also lower the cost of entering business, allowing small companies to move faster and more determinedly into territory that was originally the preserve of giants.
Every generation has their disruptive technologies. In our grandparents' day, things like the radio and the car destroyed pre-existing industries. The arrival of electricity did for other forms of energy and now of course social media is threatening the status quo from the media to retailing.
All businesses have three major ingredients. The first is vision. Without the vision, there is no objective to achieve. Without vision, you might as well take a wage and let someone else have the vision. The vision is normally benchmarked against the competition and is often pushed by the simple urge that you could do that better than the other guy.
The second set of ingredients are the constraints – normally money, people and technology or some combination or derivative of all three. Do I have enough money to start up? Can I employ the right people? And is the technology a barrier to getting to the market or starting up the business in the first place?
The third ingredient is energy. Do I have the energy to take the hits, to get back up and to continue driving forward when everyone has given up?
Every business faces the same three major dilemmas. And given that we are in a competitive world, even if you are doing well the worst thing to do is misdiagnose your success as something permanent.
Some businesses, when they are ahead, begin to believe that they have some sort of competitive advantage. This is dangerous. The most we have, no matter what we do, is a temporary monopoly, which will be figured out by the opposition. This is why constant innovation, movement and flexibility are essential to stay in the game.
There is nothing you do that can't be copied and improved on by your competitors. But this is the essence of the system we live in. The recovery in Ireland will be driven by small companies that follow the Southampton model, taking on the big guys on the little guy's own terms. The recovery won't come from the large companies. It will come from small businesses feeling confident enough after a few big wins to employ an extra person or two.
But be warned, the big guys are not asleep. They too are watching, figuring out where your weakness is and reacting to you without you even knowing, until your advantage is gone.
Watching Chelsea playing Southampton the other day, the harsh realities of competition came back in spades. The wily Mourinho saw that if he played four across the front and the Southampton players stuck to the script of defending from the front, he'd drag them all around the park, leaving his front men unmarked. This is what happened. Back to the drawing board Southampton.
The sporting cycle, like the business cycle, starts all over again.