Winning at All Costs

“Winning at all costs” may sound like good business advice, but it’s not. Maybe your business idea just isn’t going to fly and you’d be better off trying something else. Or maybe lowering your prices to beat the competition will cut into your profits more than your business can stand.

Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, famously said, “Winning is the only thing that matters in sport.” Like many sports clichés, the quote gets applied business as well. Business is competitive like sports, so clichés about winning transfer naturally to cutthroat entrepreneurialism. Similar quotes about competition take Lombardi’s thoughts even further: “Do whatever it takes to win” and the horrifying “If you’re not willing to cheat, then you don’t want to win bad enough.”

While Lombardi’s quote is morally challenging – and offensive to the new breed of education experts who shy from playground competition on the grounds that some kids have to lose – when it comes to sports, Lombardi is indeed correct. But the idea that “winning is everything” is not correct in business.

“Win at all costs” is not good business advice. There are some products and services in business that deserve a quick and tidy death, and the “win at all costs” mentality can keep a hearty entrepreneur hanging on to an idea that isn’t worth the dogged determination implicit in the clichés about winning. Sometimes the entrepreneur needs to let go to a bad product rather than holding on for the win.

“Winning at all costs” is utterly inflexible. Earlier I wrote a column about the equally inflexible quote, “Failure is not an option.” The danger in these absolutes is that they encourage the inexperienced entrepreneur to keep going with an idea when all indications suggest that the product or service is not gaining traction with a sufficient number of customers or clients.

The superior quote for an entrepreneur is, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” The “winning at all costs” mentality can preclude the important act of ditching a bad idea in favor of a better one. Those adhering to the “winning is everything” notion may view a weak reaction to a newly introduced product or service as the moment when you need to be more forceful rather than retreating and coming back with a new offering.

The hyper competitiveness in the sports quotes is also a problem when applied to business. Competition is healthy. A competitive marketplace forces improved efficiency and productivity as well as lower prices and increased choices. These contribute to an improved standard of living. But competition that goes out on the “win at all costs” limb can be destructive. There a selfishness and greediness to the “winning is everything” belief that is often counterproductive when it’s played out in the marketplace rather than on a sports field.

When competitive urges run amuck, the brutal force is just as likely to hurt and offend customers as it is to decimate the competition. A recent example is Microsoft. During the 1990s, the company was so fiercely competitive it literally ran other companies out of business. Netscape is a sad example. When Microsoft entered the browser business, its competitive moves against Netscape were so aggressive the federal government stepped in to pull the bully off its victim. It was too late for Netscape.

Microsoft’s intensely competitive activities have resulted in fewer choices and higher costs. Consumers know their choices are being limited by Microsoft’s competitive behavior, so the net result is widespread consumer resentment. The company’s bullying practices extended into the customer relationship. “Winning at all costs” landed Microsoft in federal court and created profound customer animosity.

Microsoft has since worked to soften its image. While the company is still intensely competitive – Microsoft is currently in a neck-to-neck race with Google and Yahoo to be the king of search marketing – the brutal and offensive tactics are no longer part of Microsoft’s mode of operation. With search, Microsoft is competing to produce a better product, not to create a monopoly.

There is a lot more to business than beating the competition. Winning the good will of customers is infinitely more important. If you can give your customers better service or a better product you will do well. Winning at all costs against your competition is not enough to create a good business.

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