Everyone loves an underdog. Or at least everyone roots for the underdog.
Just by the way, the first recorded use of the word ‘underdog’ happened in the later years of the 18th century and meant, unsurprisingly, ‘the beaten dog in a fight’ but the meaning has been changed slightly over time to mean a competitor in a group or competition who is popularly expected to lose.
If you can’t think of any, here are some of the most famous ones:
- David – defeated the giant Goliath with a slingshot
- Rocky – beat Apollo Creed at the end of the first movie
- Leicester City – won the Premier League in 2016 at odds of 5000-1
- Dr Dre – from poverty to the first hip-hop billionaire
- Colonel Sanders – his chicken recipe was reportedly turned down 1,099 times…
There’s something about the story of the little guy taking on the big guy that is gratifying and it’s a reminder that it doesn’t matter where you are right now, it’s where you want to be that counts.
Most of the underdog stories we hear about are sports related. In fact almost every sports film conforms to the tired cliché where the no-hoper team full of bad kids coached by a guy who believes they can win despite seemingly insurmountable odds take on the best team with the best players and the most money coached by a guy who knows they’re going to win.
You know how it goes. As the seconds click down in the final game with the underdog somehow just one point down, the bad-ass kid who quit halfway through the season and came back gets the ball and everything goes quiet, he shoots in super slo-mo and all eyes are on the ball as it flies into the basket or the top corner. The crowd go mad, the rich kids look stunned and the film ends.
But sadly, it’s not quite like that in real life.
Shame. So What Is It Really Like?
As a recruitment company passionately committed to securing great jobs for great people and great staff for great companies, we’ve seen our fair share of both sides of the coin. The confident ones who think positively and know they’re not only worthy of the job, they think the company should be grateful he or she chose them. Many of them turn out to be generally underwhelming and distinctly average.
There’s also the not-so-confident ones who defy the odds, up against seemingly better candidates who should surely get the job. These are the humble underdogs taking on the world and sometimes, just sometimes, they surprise even themselves.
There are underdogs everywhere, in all walks of life including the worlds of business, the environment and the arts and these stories might surprise you but they can also inspire you…
The Underdog: Richard Branson
The Baddie: British Airways
In the early 1990s when Branson was attempting to squeeze Virgin Atlantic into the transatlantic airline market, BA was using what were described as ‘questionable tactics’ in an attempt to undermine their latest competitor. They apparently stole information from computers, they falsely claimed to be working for Virgin to steal customers and shredded documents that pointed to their misdoings.
Branson and his lawyers, most notably the infamous George Carman QC, dug into it and found evidence of the stolen information and the dark arts that BA employed and sued for libel.
BA were forced to make an apology, Branson got £500,000 in damages and Virgin got £110,000 in damages. Old Beardie is now worth something like £3.5bn.
The Underdog: Erin Brockovich
The Baddie: Pacific Gas & Electric Company
Brilliantly portrayed by Julia Roberts in the eponymous 2000 film, Erin Brockovich was an inexperienced legal clerk and single mother who built a case against PG&E after it emerged that they had used hexavalent chromium, known as Cr-6, a cancer-causing chemical in their rust suppressors which leaked into the local water table. Locals became ill and she went for them.
Almost singlehandedly, she researched and prepared the case and persuaded local residents to come together for a class action lawsuit.
She secured the biggest ever direct-action settlement in US history at a staggering $333m, her employer received $133.6m and she got a tidy $2.5m.
From nothing, she has hosted Challenge America with Erin Brockovich on ABC, she’s president of Brockovich Research & Consulting and she’s a consultant for a number of high-profile law firms in the US and around the world.
The Underdog: Uzi Nissan
The Baddie: The Nissan Motor Company
In 1999, Israeli-born entrepreneur Uzi Nissan riled up the Japanese car company after he went to the States and set up businesses including Nissan International and Nissan Computer Corp. The car conglomerate of the same name sued him for his domain name – Nissan.com – and wanted $10m in damages.
The two parties went to court on many separate occasions and the lawmakers eventually found in favour of the Israeli on the basis that the car company had originally traded as Datsun. Remember the Cherry?
Anyway, Uzi Nissan retained his valuable domain and Nissan had to make do with NissanUSA.com and similar URLs.
The Underdog: Ben and Jerry’s
The Baddie: Häagen-Dazs
Way back in 1984, ice-cream kings Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were running a small business and in a dark corner of a diner at Logan Airport in Boston they were told by their distributor (whose main source of income was the distribution of competitor Häagen-Dazs) that if he continued to work with them, Pillsbury – the owner of Häagen-Dazs – would drop them.
Ben and Jerry had two options – accept the decision and find another distributor to get them into Boston’s market, or take on the $4bn behemoth. Guess what they did?
Cohen and Greenfield launched a brilliant campaign entitled ‘What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?’, hiring planes towing banners to fly around Boston’s sports stadiums and plastering city buses with adverts reading ‘Don’t Let Pillsbury Dollars Strangle Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.’ At one point, Jerry picketed Pillsbury’s HQ in Minneapolis – the local social innovator David versus the billion-dollar aggressor Goliath. It made for a powerful visual.
They went backwards and forwards until the campaign eventually drummed up enough support for Pillsbury to back down. Ben & Jerry’s made it into Boston and now, all this writer wants is a bucketful of Phish Food…
The Underdog: Bea’s of Bloomsbury
The Baddie: Starbucks
In 2011, Bea Vo, the founder of tea room chain Bea’s of Bloomsbury invented the ‘duffin’, a crossover between a doughnut and a muffin. Much to her annoyance, in 2013, Starbucks launched a crossover between a doughnut and a muffin and called it a ‘duffin.’
Not only did Starbucks launch the copycat, they went further, trademarking the name Duffin claiming the $95bn company ‘conducted an extensive search online and a full trademark search’ and found ‘no indication that anyone else was using the name, nor retailing a similar product.’
Bea stirred up enough support via social media with her claims that ‘food inventions should be credited, not trademarked.’
It worked. Starbucks backed down and released the following, sickly sweet and utterly empty statement: ‘Since we launched it nationwide last week we’ve started to hear about a few other versions out there, we’re sure they all taste great.’
The Underdog: JK Rowling
The Baddie: No baddie, just really really bad decisions…
Boy who doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes to wizarding school. That was the idea JK Rowling had on a train from Manchester to London, but as she was starting the first of the globally-famous seven-book series she was on benefits, her mum had died, and she was in a spiral of depression, confusion and thoughts of suicide. After a rash move to Portugal, a rash wedding followed soon after and she returned to the UK with a daughter and a divorce.
‘I still had a daughter, whom I adored, and old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.’
She wrote the first book almost entirely in cafés in Edinburgh and she decided to submit it to a publisher. The first turned her down, as did the next eleven. How must they be kicking themselves now…
Bloomsbury took a punt and we bet they’re glad they did! The Harry Potter franchise is now worth something like £20bn and she has sold over 500m books. Alone, her net worth is about £1bn and if you don’t follow her on Twitter, she’s brilliant!
So, there you are. At one point or another we’ve all been an underdog but the underdog mindsets are the ones that will carry you to success:
- Have a vision
- Be prepared to fail early and take risks
- Be aware of the world around you
- Outwork everyone else
- Don’t let adversity trip you up
- Stay humble
Catch you soon.