Think Like A Bug: Tips On Squashing The Competition From Charles Darwin, Steve Jobs, Madonna, And Other Successful People

It's a tough world out there, and the competition is fierce. Here's how some of the world's greatest leaders have embraced the challenge, and one-upped the other guy.

At a fourth of July barbecue, New York Times reporter, William J. Broad marveled at his hosts’ ability to keep mosquitoes at bay with an unlikely weapon—an electric fan.

Curious as to how his hosts had come up with the idea, in a story for the New York Times, the reporter traces the dissemination of the information all the way back to its originator, a Philadelphia businessman, who told him, "The solution came from trying to think like a bug, and realizing ‘I don’t like flying into a 15 mph wind.’" Since mosquitoes are weak flyers that clock in at a pokey 1 to 1.5 mph, the blow-‘em-away theory works.

This think-like-a-bug philosophy reminded us of the adage, "Know your enemy." We’ve all heard the maxim, "Know your customer," but that will only get you so far if part of your mission is to dominate or defeat a condition, say, Barbecue Host vs. Mosquitos or Big Pharma vs. the Big C. Or if your mission, in large part, involves dominating or defeating a rival as in Coke vs. Pepsi or Instagram vs. Vine. Sometimes for you to win your rival has to lose. So in a world of fierce competition, why do recent studies suggest that business managers who think-like-their-enemies are in the minority?

There are a few obvious ways to gather intel on those you are trying to best: Become a customer by buying your competitor’s products, talk to their customers about their likes and dislikes, check out their social media sites, set up Google alerts, even buy some stock from your rival so you can get financial information. But here are some more creative tips you can take from successful people who understand that a large measure of success depends on beating out the competition.

Madonna

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

A once-cutting edge business that has been around for years could learn a lesson from Madonna, whose first single was released over three decades ago. While most aging artists (and businesses) become uncool nostalgia acts or go quietly into the night, Madonna still commands the public’s attention. Her secret to staying relevant? Instead of viewing younger artists as competition she associates herself with them and appropriates their art. When Madonna headlined the 2012 Super Bowl Halftime Show (that she reportedly beat out Lady Gaga for), it was no accident that a posse of up-and-coming artists—LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., and Cee Lo Green—surrounded the 53-year-old superstar like planets orbiting the sun. This keeping-up-with-the-kids protocol has been a Madonna staple since she first began to recycle personae: She incorporated vogue-ing from the Harlem ballroom scene for her song "Vogue," (1990) suggestively kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (2003), copped krumping for her video of "Hung Up," (2005) and purloined cheerleader chic from Nicola Robert’s "Beat of My Drum" for "Give Me All Your Luvin’" (2012). The list goes on. And how did that Super Bowl gig work out? Two days after the show, Madonna announced the MDNA Tour, (allegedly to beat out Gaga’s announcement of her competing tour). MDNA was the highest grossing tour of 2012—taking in over $300 million. And Gaga’s tour? Eighteen dates into her Born This Way Tour, the 25-year-old injured herself and had to call off the rest of her shows.

Sam Walton

Learn how your competitor does it

When Sam Walton had his first retail venture, a five-and-dime discount store, he did reconnaissance on Sterling, the rival store across the street. At Sterling, Walton took notes on pricing, display, and signage. When Walton heard that the Sterling owner was thinking of buying out the lease from the Kroger grocery store next door, Walton begged the landlady to lease him the space instead. She did and so rather than Sterling, it was Walton who expanded. Walton never stopped studying his rivals. Todd Buchholz in his book New Ideas from Dead CEOs wrote that "Walton had the nerve to interrogate their clerks, ‘How often do you reorder? If you order on Tuesday, when do they deliver?’ Even after he launched Walmart in 1962, Sam could be found crawling on his hands and knees, sliding back the panels under the display racks of other people’s stores, counting their shirts and checking sizes."

Reid Hoffman and Konstantin Guericke

Know what your competition isn’t doing.

Before cofounders Reid Hoffman and Konstantin Guericke launched LinkedIn in 2003, they studied successful social sites of the time like SixDegrees and Friendster. To differentiate themselves they created a business-oriented platform for professional contacts and reputation. They launched the site without pictures so people would understand that it was a business network, not a social network. In an interview with Andrew Warner of Mixergy, Guericke explained that once LinkedIn launched, they promoted the site by publicizing users who’d found jobs: "This guy found this woman and it wasn’t for a date, it was for a job. So it became a very personal story and LinkedIn was the way to make it happen." Through this, people understood that LinkedIn was unlike all of their competition. Reid Hoffman elaborates on this advice for entrepreneurs who think that they have a great idea that will succeed once it gets traction: You won’t win with a superior product if you don't have a plan to rise above the "zone of competition." There aren’t many paths to beating existing competition. If you are entering a crowded market you have to be 100 times better than your competition to persuade customers to switch. Or you need an idea so novel—like LinkedIn—that disrupts your competitors.

Steve Jobs

Steal like Jobs.

In 1979 the 24-year-old Steve Jobs famously snookered Xerox. Jobs struck a deal: He’d let Xerox buy shares in Apple if Xerox would "open its kimono." When Jobs was given a tour of the Xerox PARC research labs, he saw their "mouse," "icons," and "windows." Jobs stole them all for Apple as well as the Xerox engineer Larry Tesler, who had given him the tour. The rest is history.

Charles Darwin

Know when your competitor is about to launch a similar product.

Twenty-seven years after Charles Darwin set sail on the 1831 Beagle voyage, he was still tinkering with his book on the theory of natural selection. In 1858 Darwin was shocked to receive a parcel from a colleague Alfred Russel Wallace with an unpublished paper outlining an evolutionary theory very similar to Darwin’s. In a letter to a mentor who had warned him that if he didn’t publish his theory quickly he might not be credited with its discovery, Darwin wrote: "Your words have come true with a vengeance," and as a result "all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed." Fueled by competition, Darwin raced to finish his book. One year later, in 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published and Darwin, not Wallace, got the credit. Added value: Lit critics say that since the book was written so hastily, it is much more lyrical and approachable than the scientific, heavily footnoted tome that Darwin had originally imagined. The moral is, if you know the competition is about to launch—go live first.

Michael Sitrick

Know your enemies so well you turn them into allies

When a celebrity client becomes embroiled in a scandal, Michael Sitrick, a top crisis manager, is the one who gets the 3 a.m. call. The battle for a celebrity’s reputation will be fought in the media. And Sitrick’s phenomenal success is due to his clear-eyed understanding of how the media, his natural enemy, works. For our book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well, Sitrick told us, "To be successful in my business you have to be able put yourself inside a reporter’s head to influence how he or she covers your client." Recognizing whether a reporter is skeptical, idealistic, naïve, relentless, or all of the above is Sitrick’s job. "Journalists believe that their most important mission is to uncover the truth," says Sitrick, "so if you can persuade them with facts, or steer them to where they can find the facts themselves, reporting will follow." What we can learn from Sitrick is that our success may depend on knowing our adversaries so well that we can turn them into allies.

Arianna Huffington

Compete with yourself.

For an alt view: Arianna Huffington believes that the red meat competition model of us vs. them is "a kind of macho thing." In a recent speech the founder of the Huffington Post said, "I think women are beginning to change the way we approach how we run our businesses." Does Huffington spend her nights worrying about the latest competitor who might blow HuffPo out of the water? No. She suggests another approach to competing with your rivals: "Each unique media operation has its own DNA. We need to identify what it is, and stay true to that." And who can argue with the results? Because Huffington stayed true to her vision of an online platform with a strong political view written by an international cast of thousands of celebrities, experts, and just plain folks, HuffPo is now the most popular political blog with 39 million unique viewers a month. "The bottom line," said Huffington, "is that we are competing with ourselves."

Jordan Harbinger

Use the phone.

In an article for Inc. magazine, Jordan Harbinger, a cofounder of The Art of Charm writes, "One of the best ways to research competition is to call them and ask whatever you'd like. You'd be surprised how often companies will tell you everything you'd like to learn over the phone." Harbinger suggests that you need to use some finesse. "If you want to know how many people work there," he advises, "you can say: 'I'm looking for individualized attention, and my fear is that your organization is too large, and I'll get lost in the shuffle. How many coaches do you have on staff? How much support staff do you need for a team that size?’"

Tim Calkins

Play the Game.

Large corporations have the deep pockets to hire competitive intelligence professionals or the mathematical brainpower to predict their competition’s moves with game theory. But if you are smaller than GM or Google you can still take part in what Tim Calkins, author of Defending Your Brand calls, playing the game. "Have individuals or teams assume the roles of industry players and then ask them to make some decisions and watch what happens," writes Calkins. "The concept behind game playing is simple: People are predictable. If you give different people the same incentives and the same situation, they are likely to act in a similar way."

Jack Welch

Know how the other guys plan to destroy you.

Once you are established, you have to worry about the upstarts. In 1999 no one knew exactly how the Internet would affect existing businesses. Jack Welch CEO of GE imagined being Amazon-ed, so he directed every GE business unit to go through an exercise that he called "Destroy Your Business.com." Welch had each unit identify exactly how new dotcom competitors could destroy GE’s business models—so that it would never happen. No matter how big your become, keep your eye on the disruptors who will be gunning for you.

[Swatter: Ronstik via Shutterstock]

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