Once upon a time, I had a vision of business victory. I drew a straight timeline of my (forecasted) success on a blank A4 paper.
That’s it, a straight line.
Never did I know that my visionary picture was not complete without various corners of setbacks. The simple straight line transformed itself into many chaotic abstract paths.
While success is what we desire, often a desperate situation precedes a great leap ahead. Just like pulling a catapult’s sling for a powerful shot, a painful stretch prepares for a strong comeback.
In this article, we will look at five strategic keys. I call these the ‘CoRNNR’ (read: corner) strategy for it is useful when we are backed into a corner.
The first three keys form the necessary elements. The fourth key is the most challenging one, and the final fifth key is the glue that will hold everything together.
CoRNNR strategy is being laser focused during a tough situation, for a powerful comeback. Coincidentally, setbacks, failures and crises provide fertile ground to discover, develop and strengthen our cornered business.
After all, a cornered army is a dangerous one.
“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” — Sun Tzu
Pressures force us to switch on our survival instinct. We need to become our best selves to endure hardships. There is no time to muck around.
About a decade ago, we acquired our first business in mining industrial wholesaling. We supplied safety gears and industrial strength chemicals to workshops and factories.
Our business was operating in a highly competitive market with notoriously low margins. A few years into the business, several national players entered the market and started stealing some of our significant customers using aggressive pricing tactics.
It was a typical scenario of a small business getting bullied and squashed by large corporations. We were losing customers. We knew we had to compete differently from the major players to survive the onslaught.
And so we started to look at what we could do that our big competitors couldn’t.
It was undeniable that our smallish size meant we were more flexible and we could respond faster to our customer’s needs. Our large competitors had to comply with complicated operational procedures. We didn’t.
We then found out that a small number of engineering workshops around our area were not too concerned about prices. Instead, they preferred to work with vendors who could guarantee fast delivery of supplies when required. It was something our big, fat competitors had troubles fulfilling.
Upon this realization, we started to build our business around a simple strategy. It was the assurance of quality supplies with a fast delivery turnaround. We could do that because we were small, flexible, local, and highly motivated.
It became our core strength.
We found our unique competitive advantage, and it opened up a whole new opportunity for us. Our large competitors backed us into a corner, unknowingly positioned us at a unique vantage point. It enabled us to see how we could compete on our terms in a crowded market.
Key #1: Find a core strength that allows you to compete differently from your competitors.
Resources at Max
During the onslaught period, when the big players stole our vital customers, we suffered a severe cash flow problem. This situation got worse when the mining industry crashed at around the same time. Most of our customers were operating in the mining industry.
It was a double whammy.
The cash flow issue pushed us to become meticulous spenders. We learnt that we paid too much for several services such as broadband, landline, and mobile phones. We also found out that a lot of work our staffs were doing could be outsourced or automated (it’s cheaper that way).
It was amazing how much cash was bleeding through areas we could either switch to a different provider or stop altogether. We liked this exercise so much we decided to do it regularly. It was a responsible, well-thought cost-cutting.
Desperate times hurt businesses. Cash bleeds through different outlets. A regular cost-cutting exercise would keep our resources shipshape at maximum capacity and best return.
Key #2: Make sure your limited resources work as hard as possible for your strong comeback.
So we knew how to compete differently, and our resources worked super hard to fuel our survival. It’s time to revisit the customers.
We had to let go of some customers who did not require the value we offered through our services. They were casualties of the price war.
We tried to focus our efforts and resources on a select group of premium customers (premium for us). We were confident that when we became good at something, we would naturally grow.
So we kept our eyes fixed on the chosen ones (read: customers).
What we didn’t realize back then was we stumbled upon a niche. A niche perfectly placed for our little business. In a nutshell, we matched what we could do best with the needs of a small corner of the market. It was not a big slice, but it was growing, slow but sure.
Difficult times propelled us forward through a unique path we would not find otherwise. We discovered a niche market big enough for us yet small enough to dominate. We knew we could compete comfortably against the big players because we found this niche through our unique competitive advantage.
Key #3: Use your core strength and revitalized resources to dominate your niche.
Nurture the Efficiency Seed
Our previous strategic keys can be summed up into “utilizing resources at maximum capacity to service a niche market that is a perfect fit for our unique core strength”. The final result is a highly focused, well-oiled, efficient business. The first three keys will integrate into one.
There is one small challenge, though. We can only build efficiency over time through patience and consistency. In short, it takes time, blood, sweat, and tears to perfect the efficiency engine.
It is, in essence, sowing and nurturing a seed; I call this the ‘efficiency seed’. This seed is the culmination of the previous strategic keys.
Nurturing efficiency is the most challenging part of CoRNNR strategy because we need to let go of everything else that does not contribute to servicing our niche customers. And that includes other potential customers, products, suppliers, and so on. We have to fight the temptation to try out different things. We must focus on what we can do best within the niche market that we have chosen utilizing our limited resources to the max.
Nevertheless, we will start to doubt ourselves.
But remember, we sow seeds in dark places, in obscurity where it is often cold and lonely. And it takes time to nurture them before they germinate and grow roots.
Similarly, we discover these strategic keys during tough circumstances. For only during desperate times that our perspective changes, forcing us to see pathways we would not consider before. People might misunderstand you and even mock you for your new focus, but it is important to keep playing to your strength and keep moving forward.
The next and crucial final key will help tie everything together in a beautiful little bow.
Key #4: You only become the best in your chosen niche market through focus, patience, consistency, and persistence.
Resilience to Prevail
Tough times demand resilience. We need to make a conscious effort to focus and power through. Resilience is the substance that holds everything together.
Resilience was there when large corporations squashed us. It was present when we scrambled through a cash flow problem. And it held us up when we decided to focus on servicing a small number of engineering workshops, leading to the discovery of our niche market.
Think of it as a mental muscle that strengthens your spirit whenever you feel defeated. Use it when it is difficult to take the next step. Use it also when certain people are trying to pull you down. And finally, use it when you are confused and lonely.
Now, the final twist to the CoRNNR strategy.
How do we develop our resilience muscle?
Well, there is no short cut. We can only develop resilience through desperate times.
Just like physical muscles, resilience muscle grows when it is stretched under heavy pressures. You can see how useful CoRNNR strategy is when we are backed into a corner. Because not only our perspective changes during difficult moments, our resilience also grows.
CoRNNR strategy is a full circle. It begins when the going gets tough and only when the going gets tough do we get to grow with it.
Key #5: Harsh circumstances build resilience, embrace these times for it is the precious resilience that will hold yourself (and your business) together.
Just to recap:
Key #1: Core Strength
Key #2: Resources at Max
Key #3: Niche Domination
Key #4: Nurture the Efficiency Seed
Key #5: Resilience to Prevail
I hope these five keys have been helpful.
Keep the momentum going and keep going strong.
“When you are backed into a corner, you can give up or you can use that corner as a stepping stone.” — Fredy Namdin
As published in The Startup: What To Do When You’re Backed Into A Corner