When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be nimble and quick, especially if you’re going up against a big competitor. For some companies, that’s exactly what they’re doing. We took a look at three companies who took on their industry’s Goliaths and identified what tricks and strategies they used to slingshot past their respective giants.


Manoj Bhargava seems like an unlikely billionaire founder for the ubiquitous energy shot drink, 5-hour ENERGY. The Princeton dropout spent 12 years as a “monk” of the Hanslok Ashram order in India, returning to the US on occasion to work random jobs, including driving a New York city taxi once. When he finally returned to the US permanently, it was to run his family’s plastics business. But Manoj never forgot his experiences in India. So when he found a 16-ounce energy drink at a natural products trade show in 2003, he knew this beverage could rival Red Bull and sodas in the $19.7 billion energy drink market.

The big innovation came when Manoj shrunk the 16-ounce beverage into a simple shot. Unlike canned sodas or Red Bulls, the little 5-hour ENERGY shot was small enough to be placed at the check-out aisles. In fact, Wal-Mart’s check-out aisle still accounts for an estimated 15% of 5-hour’s overall sales. By differentiating his product in an otherwise crowded energy drink space, 5-hour ENERGY could literally go where the other drinks couldn’t–in the check-out aisle next to the bubble gum, candy, and magazines.

How will your business differentiate so it can go where your large competitors won’t (or can’t) go? For example, you can consider going freemium if your competitors can’t. Look at these posts by Andrew Chen and Jason Lemkin to find out how.


In the fast casual industry, Chipotle is the big enchilada (so to speak). The popular burrito restaurant combines high quality ingredients with high margins. That’s why Nam Hoang thinks he can beat Chipotle at its own game with his San Francisco based fast casual restaurant, Freshroll. Think of Freshroll as a Chipotle via Vietnam, with fresh greens and non-GMO meats in rice-paper rolls and bowls. How does Nam and Freshroll compete when larger incumbents like Chipotle are also vying for the same lunch-time orders? The answer is community.

At Freshroll, Nam and his team go out of their way to make sure their customers get the best local experience. As a San Francisco based restaurant, Nam and his team participate in local events like Outside Lands. They also make it important to greet their customers like they are regulars at a local mom-and-pop. That’s why Nam and his management team spend a great deal of their time hiring the best employees. “Our hope is to integrate Freshroll in the San Francisco community not just to promote Vietnamese cuisine, but to be a valued, staple addition offering to the already fantastic San Francisco food culture.  After all, the smile on our customers’ faces is the most enjoyable part of this industry.”

If your business is going up against a large incumbent, can you beat them by providing better local service? Be active on social media and engage your customers directly, with social media management tools like Buffer or ManageFlitter. Don’t forget, social media is a conversation, not just about promotion.


The fitness industry is a crowded space with a number of large players like 24 Hour Fitness and smaller local gyms. That’s what makes the Bar Method and its $35 million in gross revenue so impressive. The Bar Method is founder Burr Leonard’s take on exercises popularized by ballerina dancer Lotte Berk in the 60s and 70s. Since opening her first Bar Method studio in San Francisco in 2001, more than 70 studios have opened nationwide. How did Burr Leonard start a new trend in the saturated fitness market? It was by listening to her customers.

The original Lotte Berk method regimen is rooted in traditional ballerina dance. Burr started out by opening Lotte Berk studios in the early 90s after practicing for a decade at other studios. By 1999 she and her then-husband operated four total Lotte Berk studios. However, she noticed the exercises were stressing the knees, backs, and shoulders of her clients. She listened to her clients and with the help of a physical therapist, adapted the Lotte Berk method into the Bar Method.

What can you learn from asking your customers? Try using feedback tools like Qualaroo, surveys from Qualtrics or SurveyMonkey to learn what your customers love about your product, and what needs work.

David Cheng
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