The Next Cinderella Story

One of my favorite sports teams is not one you’re going to see game highlights of on ESPN’s SportsCenter. In fact, you’ve probably never heard of them. The 2006 Redwood City 7th- and 8th-grade girls’ basketball team, however, is the stuff of modern sports legend.

When Vivek Ranadivé, TIBCO Software founder, took on coaching his daughter’s middle school basketball team, he didn’t resort to the usual playbook. Instead, he applied his entrepreneurial ingenuity and curiosity to ask whether there was an approach to playing that would “change the game.” Ranadivé zeroed in on the in-bounds pass and the rule that teams pass half court within the first 10 seconds of play. He suspected that most teams overlooked these seemingly inconsequential aspects of the game.

So he dedicated the Redwood City team’s practices to working on pressing their opponents’ in-bound passes. He also set up tight man-to-man (or, in this case, girl-to-girl) coverage for every inch of the court. He found that this approach brought the girls together as a team in a way that shooting drills never could, forcing them to communicate with each other as they worked to isolate the ball handler and prevent a pass.

At tip-off time, parents and fans at the games said that the opposing teams always looked bigger and better than Redwood City, yet under Ranadivé’s helm, the Redwood City middle school girls went undefeated — in one instance running up the score 25–0 before the other team even scored a basket.

Ranadivé applied an innovative approach to the game of basketball much as an entrepreneur would to their industry. And he’s continued to support the underdog long after his middle school girls’ basketball coaching career ended: In 2013, he became owner and chairman of the Sacramento Kings, effectively saving his beloved team from moving to Seattle.

Entrepreneurs are the inherent underdog, playing in an arena against corporate incumbents, who have established and predictable methodologies, ingrained ways of thinking and acting — and considerable market share. The odds of beating these bigger established players can be daunting. That is, unless you look at it like Ranadivé’s team did: practicing a new, untested approach can create winning opportunities that the competition will never suspect — and often will underestimate.

To make up for differences in size and market share, a startup needs to employ an entirely different approach. They need to focus on the overlooked parts of the “game” to upend their competition, obsess over aspects of product innovation that an incumbent has long forgotten, incorporate edgy ways to brand and market the company, and embrace an unparalleled customer experience that will blow users’ minds.

And most importantly, practice, practice — and practice again. The best entrepreneurs relentlessly focus on the most minor mechanics of the business and never cease to find ways to improve in the next product iteration or during the next major growth opportunity.

By applying a unique approach to the same old game and practicing until the execution is perfect, you could become the next Cinderella startup story.