December 12, 2011

Winning Unconventionally

No two fingerprints, people, or businesses are exactly alike. While learning from the experiences of others can be illuminating and inspiring, your own challenges are unique, and following a path previously trod may not deliver you the same outcome. Often, taking an unconventional approach can deliver results far beyond those anyone anticipated, and your differentiation can start to be part of your story.

While Microsoft was building a dominating market share position for operating systems through licensing its software to OEMs, one of Steve Jobs' first moves upon returning to Apple was to discontinue licensing of the Mac OS to 'clones' including Motorola and Power Computing. The clones were not, in fact, helping the Mac increase market share, but were cannibalizing Apple, and going a different way was needed. Jobs similarly canceled the Newton handheld, and pushed the company to focus on a select few products, and do them extremely well.

More recently, on a backdrop of failed P2P networks from Kazaa to LimeWire and others, when music peddlers argued customers want to own their songs instead of stream them, Daniel Ek and the Spotify team created a subscription-based streaming service on the back of P2P technology, and are now valued at a billion dollars, while the company is still in its youth.

Square unconventionally found a solution for a universal adapter for wireless payments by determining the one similarity between all smartphones was an audio port. Instagram differentiated through elegant display and an array of filters that made casual photographers feel like artists. Path discarded the trend of wide sharing and focused on a more intimate network - discarding the status quo of the time.

On this backdrop, turning away from tech and toward sports, if you'll allow it, we come across one of the more intriguing storylines in recent football memory, as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, believed to be a below-average professional passer with almost no experience, but a robust college resume, as well known for his spirituality as anything else, has rattled off six consecutive wins in remarkable fashion, sparking his team to the division lead after a moribund start.

In an era when leading signal-callers are posting 300 and even 400 yards passing per game, Tebow has famously won games where he has thrown for less than 100. He won one game without a single completion in the first half, and has become as feared an offensive weapon for his running game - posting 118 yards in a game on November 6th, and amassing more than 500 yards rushing over nine games. What Tebow has managed to do, despite all the critics and low expectations, is largely avoid mistakes (see only 2 interceptions against 198 completion attempts) and keep his team in the game, acting as a riddle for opposing defenses.

Those who've been talking about the Tebow phenomenon across the country in recent months (and I've had this post in my to-do pile for several weeks) note that the Broncos' turn-around has not been solely due to one man's effort. The team's defense has been outstanding, letting four of the last five team wins come despite 17 or fewer points, including a 13-10 victory yesterday over the Bears. In fact, yesterday's game saw the team kicker smash two field goals of fifty yards or more, including a 59 yarder at the end of regulation, and the 51 yarder that won the game in overtime. Regardless, the team is winning unconventially, changing the rules to match the talent set provided. To ask Tebow to throw for 300 plus yards, and look downfield on the majority of plays doesn't seem to be where he's best suited and the team's record of win after win shows the differentiated approach is working. Even the most casual football and sports fans has to be intrigued by the seeming magic that is happening in Denver.

Back the world of Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs, there are few sure things, except for the knowledge that your challenges and opportunities are in a combination previously unseen. For every superstar like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, there are players like Tim Tebow, who can leverage their talents and drive the most possible out of their own abilities, if empowered and given the opportunity. There's plenty to read on best practices of doing a startup or architecting a successful social network or going viral, but sometimes it takes a different path - an unconventional approach - to the problem, to achieve something incredible.