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Swinging From The Heels

By Mark Vanderkam |

To succeed in marketing, you need to be aggressive. This doesn't mean that you require the personality of Attila the Hun. Rather, you have to know when to act on the opportunities before you.

In baseball, one of the things that serious players hate more than anything is when they get called out on strikes. If they strike out swinging, at least they have the satisfaction of knowing that they took their best cut and their opponent simply out-played them. But when they take a called third strike, they feel they just blew an at-bat by not being aggressive enough on a close pitch. And to make matters worse, their teammates let them know it as well. One thing they will hear when they go back to the dugout is the not-so-subtle reminder: "You can't hit the ball with the bat on your shoulder."

Business opportunities are like at-bats in a ball game; it's up to the individual businessperson to decide how he or she will handle the opportunity. They can let the ball pass, hoping that a better chance will come along on the next pitch. Or they can take a swing and hope to put the ball into play and make something happen. Of course, if they do nothing, they will never get out of the batter's box.

In many cases, it's the entrepreneur who takes an aggressive approach and attempts to capitalize on an opportunity. The Hong Kong businessman who created the first Asian satellite-based television network was famous for holding intense 40-hour strategy sessions during the business start-up period. His whole philosophy was to seize the moment and get his business structure and marketing into place before his competitors had time to react. The result? After a year the network was losing money, so the entrepreneur sold it for $800 million, making a tidy profit in the process. Not bad, for simply taking off-the-shelf programming and making it available to an untapped market using off-the-shelf satellite bandwidth.

A few years ago, a group of Canadian business managers saw an opportunity to launch a new "branded" version of a cellular phone. At the time, Canada had one of the lowest rates of cellular phone ownership in the industrialized world. These managers decided to make the phone's image more "friendly", aiming to bring in general consumers rather than traditional business buyers. They knew they had to act quickly before their main competitor could react. So to save time, they outsourced their day-to-day management functions, bringing in some "temp" managers to run the company while they focused on the product launch. The result? It took just six weeks to launch the Cantel Amigo cellular phone nationwide from the time the idea was first conceived to the time the product was on store shelves.

I personally enjoy stories like that, just as I appreciate a baseball player swinging from his heels, playing with all his heart. In business, however, it's actually quite rare to find people willing to take bold decisions and make things happen. Once an entrepreneur turns his or her business over to "professional managers", you often see a bureaucratization process where people become more interested in preserving what they have rather than taking risks and going after new victories.

In 1982, one of my present clients left a company where he was a senior VP because he was frustrated with the company's inability to seize new opportunities. His major complaint was that the managers were most skilled at keeping balls in the air and not actually getting anything done. They would literally spend three or four years arguing about a new business concept without actually doing anything about it. When my client saw an opportunity to use a revolutionary new business tool called the IBM PC in his line of work, he left his job and took his best shot at capitalizing on the moment. The result? It took years before his competitors could catch up, so his company became the leader in its field of specialization. The company he left? Oh, they went out of business a few years later, after operating in Canada for almost 100 years. Killed by bureaucrats, presumably.

In baseball, players who knew enough to be aggressive at the plate populate the Hall of Fame. Business is no different. If you want to do well at marketing, do your research, identify an opportunity, devise a strategy, and execute it. Who knows, you might connect and hit one flying over the fence.

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