Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. The Greatest.

Whatever you call him, there is no disputing that he was one of the greatest heavyweights and sports figures of all time. His influence upon society history, and popular culture are immense. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why my father named me after him.

Just before his fight with Sonny Liston back in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali’s uttered his most well-known phrase:

‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see’

An apt description of his fighting style, Muhammad Ali had superior hand speed combined with superb reflexes, agility, a left jab that came from unseen angles, and then a devastating right hook. He wasn’t the biggest or the strongest, but he knew how to get inside of his opponent’s head.

Boxing is sometimes called “the sweet science.” It’s not just two guys in a ring swinging at each other. It’s chess. It’s strategy. It’s understanding your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and finding opportunities to be a threat.

How does this relate to marketing?

The thought of going toe-to-toe with your biggest competitor(s) is intimidating, especially with all of their considerable advantages glaring right back at you: name recognition, staff size, finances, marketing budget, etc.

But speed, flexibility, and good footwork are the keys to going up against powerhouse. Here’s a break down Muhammad Ali’s famous line into small business tips to help you face your toughest competitors.

“Float like a butterfly,”

Larger companies are often too massive, too slow, and too lazy to keep up with the innovations and changes in technology. They’re often too entrenched in the old school to realize that they should’ve moved up or down a weight class a long time ago. So here’s what you can do:

  1. Embrace change and don’t be afraid to pivot.
    Sometimes, in order to succeed, you may need to switch things up. Muscle confusion is the key to breaking through physical plateaus. The same principle applies to breaking through business plateaus.
  2. Reject the concept of “we’ve always done it that way”.
    The way you’ve always done it is only going to give you what you’ve always had. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
  3. Keep it loose and flexible.
    Draconian red tape or glacial approval processes will kill your ability to market effectively and innovate on the fly.

“Sting like a bee,”

Larger companies tend to have massive egos and be dismissive of things taking place beneath their noses until it’s too late. A big buzzword you’re hearing a lot of today is “disruption”, and it’s because smaller entities are transforming their industries in incredible ways. Here’s how you can too:

  1. Stay humble. Bees don’t attack unless they’re provoked. So focus on your business and addressing your customer’s needs. Don’t obsess about your competition unless there’s a direct attack that harms your ability to service your clients.
  2. Hustle hard. Work harder than your biggest competitor’s biggest competitor. And if you end up competing against yourself, then that’s all well and good.
  3. Find your hive. Build and develop relationships with other businesses that can compliment your services and propel your business forward.

“…his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see”

Larger companies often rely upon their heavyweight status and how “things used to be”; never bothering to look out into the landscape, and see what marketing is now and envision what it could be. So here’s what you can do:

  1. Serve the underserved. Grow your potential client list by reaching out to those that have been forgotten by the big guys. Their needs may fall just below the budget/timing/fit threshold of what your larger competitors may be willing to service.
  2. Provide a deeper level of service. Skill and knowledge being equal, you can compete with your rival by offering a deeper, more intimate level of service than they can.
  3. Keep pushing. The worst thing you can do is get too comfortable when you think you’ve made it. If you’re the champ, remember that there’s always someone who wants to take your place.

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights. — Muhammad Ali