Every business needs to win. Successful people are winners. Great teams are defined by winning. Consultants and analysts strive to tell us who the winners will be from new trends or technologies. Speakers break the ice by asking their audience “Who wants to be a winner?” Business school professors and ex CEOs offer us strategies called “Playing to Win” or something similar. Sports stars and military commanders are hired as icons and role models.
Winning becomes a tool to motivate people. Sales teams, finance teams and procurement teams develop initiatives called “Winning in the marketplace” or “Refuse to lose.” Office walls are covered with cute posters repeating mantras like “Get ahead of the game” or “Winning is an attitude.” New recruits are urged to join the winning team and old lags are measured by Win/Loss Ratios. Commercial and business success is surely all about winning.
Business is not a zero sum game
This is misleading, narrow and wrong. One of the growing cliches of the Startup movement is “Not a zero sum game.” This is the fundamental truth of business. Peter Drucker said the only valid definition of business purpose is “to create a customer.” We create a customer by adding value not by beating someone else. A much older cliche is “win win.” This captures a fundamental truth you must create value for customers to make a business. You must create value within the business to survive and succeed.
Pitch for customers not for victory
Even in competitive pitches winning is not the overriding objective. Where more than one company is bidding for a sale of whatever kind it is easy to focus on beating the others to “win” the business. But remember, this means you are thinking about your “opposition” not on your customer. Being customer focused means all the time not just when you have the time. Develop your pitch by thinking about your customer. How can you add the maximum value? What is the most effective way to show your customer that value? Where is the additional value your offering brings?
For a Startup pitching for funds has similar challenges. It can feel like a battle. An increasing amount of money is on offer through events that are overtly staged as competitions. Both funding pitches and sales pitches are two way dialogues. Do you really want these people as investors? Which should you present the true heart of your business or the version that convinces the competition judges? How strong will the relationship be after the pitch if you opt for the latter?
What happens if you win?
Think about this from the perspective of a battle. The greatest generals and statesmen are not just about winning the battle. They work to the strategic objective of the campaign or the defining mission of their cause. Those who simply fight to win find themselves flying the flag over a bloody field and wondering what to do next. The same is true in a business context. Imagine winning the money in a pitching competition. How to spend it? What does the awarding body expect? How can I keep my investors happy? Far better to be asking: How can I find customers, show them how I solve a real world problem and deliver my product or service to them in an awesome way? Then spend the money on those activities which most directly contribute to those outcomes.
How do you want to be remembered?
Let me ask one final question. What do you want to be remembered for? Is your legacy to be the market leader or the biggest winner? Or would you prefer that your product was loved and desired. Your business was venerated and admired. Your people were sought out and lauded. This is the real truth behind the zero sum concept. Startups are not just about making money. They are about adding value by solving real world problems. My best memories from my career are not from winning the big bid. They are from delivering the greatest change and value for my clients. The great founding teams and entrepreneurs change the world, any success will at least change the lives of your customers.
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.