This post was originally published on Inc. on Dec. 19, 2016.
Before Greg Ott—the talented and dynamic president of my company—worked for me, he was the VP of Global Marketing for Ask.com (formerly known as Ask Jeeves) from 2004 to 2007.
In those few short years, he helped turn around a nascent brand and a struggling business by transforming a tiny marketing team into a $100 million operation with a single burning charter: to take on Google and win.
They saw themselves as David, and Google as Goliath. Unfortunately, Goliath kicked their butts. I thought his insights would be perfect for Inc.com readers, so I sat down with him to ask him about the experience.
He shared four main takeaways, with an emphasis on how they apply to small business owners today.
1. Have a Great Purpose
“It was never just about beating a bigger company,” said Ott. “We believed that we could offer better everyday search results than Google. We felt that their popularity-based ranking didn’t uncover the most relevant and authoritative results on the web. Customers needed a Peet’s coffee, so to speak, with richer flavor, as an alternative to Starbucks.”
Entrepreneurs who believe in what they’re doing—whose goals are greater than simply lining their pockets or gratifying their egos—bring an energy and zest to their projects that competitors find hard to keep up with.
Choose work that you believe in, and understand whose lives you really want to impact.
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2. Build a Great Team
“A great team consists of people who are capable and work together well,” Ott said. “We added a lot of people to the team as our business grew. Our best hires at Ask.com were people innately curious and extremely motivated.”
But you won’t find these attributes on a resume or a LinkedIn profile. Ott learned this lesson when he hired people who had big company experience (including Google), and they turned out to be some of the worst hires he made.
“We used to say that 95% of people wouldn’t even try to compete against Google—and we were the other 5%,” Ott said. “It’s tempting to believe that you can spot that 5% magic because of a well-known company on someone’s resume. Many of our best people came from companies you’ve never heard of, and their greatest talent was simply the ability to work hard.”
3. Build a Great Product
One of Ott’s most fundamental takeaways from Ask.com, he says, was the importance of product experience.
The problem was that for all their bang-up advertising, the search results themselves didn’t consistently deliver on the promise. At least not enough to get large numbers of people to make it their primary everyday search engine.
“The best way to really scale a business for the long run is to focus on what many call the Zero Moment of Truth—the experience someone has when they’re actually using your product,” said Ott.
Whether it’s coffee, a house, software, or a massage service, identify what makes people say “Wow.” If you sell cupcakes, before you worry about how nicely your store is laid out, make sure you are making the best cupcake around. The most important moment isn’t the first time they step inside your shop—it’s when they take that first bite.
4. Learn and Persevere
At the end of the day, Goliaths are tough to beat. David was the exception to the rule—an ideal example of when everything goes exactly in your favor.
“Even if you don’t fully hit your goals, you never regret working hard,” said Ott. “In every job there are going to be ups and downs. I learned that lesson thoroughly while trying to compete with a juggernaut like Google.”
Never give up. If you don’t run into some real challenges during your business adventures, chances are that somebody else has already pioneered what you’re trying to do.
“You can talk all day about talented engineers or clever marketers,” said Ott, “but the only consistent way to feel good at the end of the week is to know that you busted your ass and did your best.”
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