Do you think like a challenger?

June
27, 2021

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If you know the story of David and Goliath, you already know what it is to be a challenger. As a story about thinking differently in order to overcome seemingly insurmountable competition, it is an important lesson for today's entrepreneurs.

Rather than being defined by their size or the industry in which they operate, challengers fight smarter and more focused. They look at different ways of recognizing and mastering their unfair advantage, balancing long and short term goals that actively use capitalism for the good of society and the environment.

Being a challenger is a mindset, an outlook on life, and a game book to see the world around you. Here are eight steps you can take to ensure you approach entrepreneurship like a challenger.

1. Be your own customer

Buy and use your own product or service. Experience your own customer service anonymously and go one step further by devoting (at least) one day per quarter to answering customer service inquiries. This will deepen your understanding and build empathy. In what ways does your product or service fail, meet and exceed expectations? Where are you vulnerable to existing and emerging competitors? What does it take to be exceptional and what are you going to do about it? Consider extending this practice to the entire leadership team or a more diverse group of voices and experiences, and compare the notes.

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2. Slip into your competitor's shoes

An essential part of thinking like a challenger is understanding the competition so you can better crowd them out. That doesn't just mean relying on market research and Google reviews. Do your best to get a real feel for what it means to live like your competition. Buy and use their products, consume their marketing and social content, anonymously call their customer service team to get a feel for their experience, and document your joys and frustrations along the way. Think about who they are speaking to and who they are leaving out, what needs they address and fail against, and whether they will advance society and improve people's lives. Use all of this data to identify ways in which you can improve, address unmet needs, and change the game.

3. Accept negative customer ratings and feedback

Receiving negative feedback about your brand is never a pleasant experience, but it is often based on the truth. Take the time to practice social listening and browse relevant review sites. Take what someone says to heart and see if patterns emerge from other negative feedback. Not only that, negative reviews are harmful. Accepting and addressing negative feedback today will have a positive impact on your long-term worth.

4. Finding analogues

If you monitor your industry and nothing else, you are living in a silo. Challengers examine disruptors and those that are turning the status quo upside down in other sectors, be it music, art, or something entirely different, in the hopes that it can be applied to their own industry. Think of it like sampling in music, where you take something that already exists, known to the listener, but you re-envision it so that it becomes part of a completely new recording. This is the foundation of many new business models where disruptors want to be the Uber of X or the Patagonia of Y. Think about how these new business models and innovations apply to your company and your industry.

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5. Establish a challenge network

In his book Think again, Wharton School Professor Adam Grant introduces the concept of the Challenge Network. This network is a team of critics, outsiders and creatives with whom you surround yourself, question the assumptions and constantly push you out of your comfort zone. As the book describes, they are “a group of people whom we trust to reveal our blind spots and help us overcome our weaknesses”. Every Challenger brand and thinker should have a Challenge Network or be actively working to build one. Start with a group of four provocateurs that you can convene to review your strategic plan or product roadmap, and consider meeting with the group (or a subgroup) more often to anticipate competitive threats, assessment errors, and more / or to seize new opportunities.

6. Stage debates

In addition to building a network of challenges, you should also ensure that you create an environment where the debate is healthy and your team is comfortable taking sides with the existential threats your business is facing. Be it committing to a decision that will move your model from a product-based to a service-based model, and whether you are rigorously discussing how your approach can be more sustainable or how your business can be more inclusive, you want a team and an environment, who can discover new ideas and ways of thinking. Actively stage debates in order to get people to stand up for one side and learn from opposing or different positions.

7. Experiment

The biggest challengers are those who experiment. Google still uses the 20 percent rule it announced in 2004, which encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their time doing what they think will benefit most from Google. It's something that enables them to be more creative and innovative, but it should be introduced into your processes. This can be institutionalized through hackathons that push time away from your core business and give competing teams the time to conceive and develop new ideas, or by setting up a Skunkworks team to work on new ideas. These ideas are likely to be fun, build innovation muscles, or even generate revenue. Taking your time to think outside the box and encourage experimentation will pay off.

8. Know that this is not about you

If there's one thing that defines a challenger brand, it's their focus on broader impact, be it society or the environment. All of these should enable you to grow your business while advancing society and the planet at the same time. More than ever, consumers are joining brands who share their views. Studies show that 83 percent of millennials want companies to be guided by their values, and 76 percent want CEOs to speak up on issues that are important to them. Brands have a responsibility to double their political stance and talk about the moments that move them. Do not be afraid of it. Embrace it. That's what leaders do and what the world needs.

Related: 3 Strategies for Courageous Thinking and Action

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