Young Upstarts

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[Review] Killing Giants

Don’t we all love the Bible story of how Hebrew shepherd boy David goes up against giant Philistine warrior Goliath, and kills him spectacularly with just a sling stone. It’s the ultimate story of the underdog, the upstart triumphing over the incumbent. In the book “Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry“, marketing strategist and author Stephen Denny offers ten strategies on how small, nimble companies can outsmart, out-innovate and outfight the larger competitors in their industry. You’ll read case studies and examples surrounding over 30 upstart brands from a dozen countries, culled from interviews Denny conducted with them.

Here are his ten strategies:

1. Thin Ice.

This strategy is all about choosing your ground – find the ground where your competitor is uncomfortable fighting in, where its size and relative strength matters little. Can you lure them out onto thin ice? And when your competitor is moved away from its comforts – whether geographic, technological or intellectual – your chances of success will be so much better.

Denny gives the example of how South Africa’s hair products company Black Like Me and China’s Internet search engine Baidu play the “local” card and occupies a space where its competitors find difficulty competing in. I especially enjoyed – as a beer aficionado – his example of how the Boston Beer Company understood that it needed to position the Samuel Adams brand differently from the idea of beers being merely a commoditized alcoholic drink like what its competitors did.

2. Speed.

Speed may kill, but with speed your competitors can’t hit what they can’t reach. Denny points out that speed matters in everything – from decision making to evolving your business, from speed of execution to mobilizing support from stakeholders.

3. Winning in the last three feet.

Have you ever brought a product you think you wanted to buy, only to swop for another brand at the counter instead? That’s right – winning in the last three feet refers to the strategy where you leverage on your competitors initiatives and snatch the final sale right from under their noses. The truth is that spending doesn’t equate conversion, so smart brands can learn how to influence consumers to pick their products instead right at the finishing line.

4. Fighting dirty.

An honest, toe-to-toe fight with the incumbent should be the last thing an upstart wants. David would be (kosher) mincemeat before Goliath in a straight-up sword fight. Smart brands should learn to create match-up problems for their larger competitors, and use tactics that they will find difficult to counter because of their size. Denny recommends questioning market assumptions – you may just find a secret weapon that an opponent may find hard to counter.

5. Eat the bug.

Eat the bug refers to doing the unthinkable, what your competition finds inconceivable. Take the Vibrams FiveFingers shoe, for example. It’s ugly, and no athletic shoe company would conceive of designing something like this. But Vibrams isn’t a traditional athletic shoe company, anyway.

Do something different. Scary even. You get the idea.

6. Inconvenient truths.

Denny asserts that by finding “inconvenient truths” – where you challenge your customer’s thinking and move them from purely an emotional state to a more rational, normal functioning one so that they know what’s in their best interests, or vice versa – you can provide reasons for them to pick you instead.

7. Polarize on purpose.

Create your unique story (a reason to believe, if you will) and polarize the market, especially if you have a brand or product that is meaningfully different from your competitor. Truly unique brands pushes us to make decisions – Denny highlights the MINI, a small, small car in a market that believed the bigger and more powerful, the better. Or how about Germany’s Prizeotel, a budget design hotel (which sounds like a contradiction)? It re-imagined the overnight stay, and made itself stand out from the rest.

Polarization can create exclusivity, which leads to a sense of collective identity.

8. Seize the microphone.

Seizing the microphone is all about breaking through the clutter by commandeering the conversation. It’s about sharing big ideas and your vision, showing some personality when your competitor prefers to remain at arm’s length.

9. All the wood behind the arrow(s).

The idea behind “all the wood behind your arrows” is to focus your energies and efforts into a few select areas – as opposed to being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none – to win at a certain point of attack, with which you can penetrate the market and stay there. And when you excel in a certain area, whether its functional expertise or communication, you make it difficult for your competitor to casually attack and dislodge you from your position.

10. Show your teeth.

In certain cultures, showing your teeth is a sign of welcome; in others, it’s a challenge. For the upstart, it’s about realizing that nagging fear in the giant’s mind – that you’re better – and continually press forth your competitive advantages into its face. As Denny says, when you’re better, don’t be shy about it.


I found the book to be very well-structured, with Denny clearly articulating his ideas and substantiating them with good case studies, as well as key lessons to take away with. In truth, many of his ideas are simple common sense that good business owners should possess anyway. But it’s nice to have someone like Denny to compile them all into a nicely packaged book, and making it pleasant reading to boot.

If you’re a startup founder looking at ways to challenge a market with a strong competitor, or if you’re a marketer who has limited resources but need to launch a new product into a crowded market, this book is for you.


Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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