Startup lessons from David vs. Goliath story — Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation

I recently watched Malcolm Gladwell’s findings of the biblical story of David vs. Goliath that he presented at a TED talk in September 2013. As usual, he takes a counter-intuitive view of this classical story and his interpretation taught me 3 lessons on how startups can compete against larger players in their industry.

Historically, the story of David and Goliath is considered to be about the unlikely victory of a weaker person over a much larger and stronger opponent using nothing but basic tools and courage. Who doesn’t love an amazing underdog tale!

Malcolm Gladwell digs deeper into the meaning of the story and finds the following:

  • The sling David used was actually one of the most devastating weapons of the time. Combined with the specific stone from the scene of the fight (ultra-compact stone) and the close distance from which he hits Goliath, the impact is probably similar to a 45mm gun in modern parlance. Pretty powerful stuff!
  • David’s single shot in the middle of Goliath’s eyes required tremendous amount of practice to develop this perfect aim
  • It seems Goliath suffered from a specific medical condition that on the one hand gave him the advantage of height and physical strength over everyone else on the battlefield, but, on the other hand restricted his mobility and vision dramatically. This medical condition made him very strong in close hand-to-hand combat, but left him unprepared to react to an attack from a distance.

Lessons for startups competing against larger players in the industry:

  • What underlies the strengths of your large competitors could also be the reason for their weakness. For example, a large, competent salesforce can be an advantage as it allows to build and maintain a strong, wide-reaching network of high-quality customer relationships. However, this can be a major challenge if a startup launches a competing product using a SaaS model, making the traditional model look very bulky and expensive.
  • It is highly likely that challenging an established industry player will require tremendous amount of practice to effectively hit your target at exactly the point where they are the most vulnerable. This accurate hit (or a series of hits — there may not be a “silver bullet” scenario) is unlikely to happen overnight or just by plain luck: startups will need to put in years of dedicated practice into developing this expertise.
  • Your choice of weaponry has to be one that your competition is unprepared for and / or ill-equipped to handle. Put differently, you have to shift the battle in a way that their deep pockets become more meaningless, perhaps even, to a certain extent, irrelevant. The strategies and tools you use, however have to be highly effectively, time-tested and able to deliver a massive blow.

In short, the story as interpreted by Malcolm Gladwell leads to one significant conclusion — winning against Goliath doesn’t happen by fluke, it requires time and effort to hone your craft.