How top-performing teams play to win

Within any competitive landscape, those who manage to win against the odds always capture our imagination and command our respect. The tech industry is no exception.

Today, simply being the biggest or most well-funded is not enough to ensure success. And, as any worthy contender will attest, winning a single race isn’t enough. Those who repeatedly triumph are those who are the most prepared to compete with three elements: speed, strength and endurance. 

The following is a playbook of pioneering leaders, tech icons, and business luminaries who’ve become vanguards of their industries or triumphed when facing unprecedented circumstances by shining in one or more of these arenas at a key point in their history.

Relying on speed to break from the pack

Practically speaking, time is our most precious resource. Anyone familiar with the agile approach will tell you that trying to predict, control or eliminate variances is a futile effort. When change is constant, speed of execution is more important than perfect execution.

Etsy, an online marketplace for arts and crafts, is an example of using speed to an advantage. In 2008, while Etsy was still considered a startup, the team was deploying twice a week. Rather than spend months working on a release, they made smaller releases more frequently. But the team was discovering those deploys were painful for their engineers. A single change to a banner meant redeploying the entire site, a four-hour process.

Around the end of 2009, Etsy made drastic changes. Tech leaders let engineers deploy their own code. They removed middleware tools with approval processes. They gave ownership of the feature to the person developing it. For the next couple of years, they integrated their teams, destroying the dividing lines between developers and operations. The software is more atomic, so developers don't have to deploy the entire site for small change.

As a result of the sweeping technical and cultural changes, they went from two deployments a week to 60 per day. Why is that important? Because deployments are faster, smaller, and less painful, this allows Etsy to innovate at a breakneck pace. They can add features and respond to customer feedback quickly, and make large business pivots before their competitors. Developers can focus on their work instead of deployment hassles.

Speed to market is also an asset in Target’s playbook. While many American companies scrambled to address COVID-19 in March 2020, Target reacted swiftly on behalf of those sheltering in place with a strategic new service called Drive Up, a curbside pickup option with no added costs or minimum order requirements.

The retail giant’s ability to provide Drive Up at scale and grow its ecommerce channel is because of its 1,850 stores and their ability to act as micro-fulfillment centers. Getting its start as pilot programs in the Twin Cities and Kansas City, Drive Up rapidly evolved based on guest feedback; immediate improvements were made to triple its assortment.

The smart network, digital channels and supply chain that enable Drive Up’s fast-to-fill capabilities are also a result of Target’s idea to reimagine 600 of its stores back in 2019. With its new technology, team members can search inventory, use mobile point-of-sale systems to receive payment and arrange delivery for guests—right from the sales floor.

By combining its Drive Up curbside pickup, in-store pickup and Shipt same-day delivery within its app, Target has positioned itself as a fast, convenient micro-fulfillment center. For its efforts, Target realized an increase of 10.8% in comparable sales for the quarter.

Key takeaways

  • Favor speed of execution over perfect execution.

  • Consider removing middleware tools and approval processes.

  • Always react quickly to your consumers’ needs.

Building up strength for the road ahead

When a company ascends to a position of authority in its field, victory can be short lived. No longer compelled to push boundaries or innovate, organizations grow susceptible to complacency, unprepared for the onset of new challengers and changing technology.

In 2017, Equifax (once the mainstay of credit reporting) failed to patch a server in its consumer complaint web portal against a pervasive software flaw. The security breach exposed the personal data of 147 million Americans and tarnished Equifax’s reputation.

And there are companies who use strength to respond to change, furthering their impact.

While becoming the status quo for desktop and server software in the 90s and 2000s, Microsoft was not willing to become complacent. The advent of cloud computing and software as a service models threatened to erode the position Microsoft held.

Rather than rest on its laurels, Microsoft developed Azure, a cloud computing platform that seemed to compete with their best selling products directly. Why would anyone buy copies of Windows Server for their datacenter when they could "rent" servers in the cloud? Though it seems like opposing interests, Microsoft could see the changes coming ahead, and built a product to address it. Rather than selling hard copies of their products like Microsoft Office and Outlook, they offered software as a service as an alternative.

By continuing to innovate and anticipate change, Microsoft positioned itself to stay relevant. It was able to successfully leverage existing customers looking to move operations to the cloud by offering a transition to Microsoft's service. Had they gotten comfortable with years of success with a boxed software model and resisted change, the story would be different today.

Key takeaways

  • Resist complacency and stay competitive.

  • Anticipate and innovate for the changes to come. 

  • Diversify to augment key business strengths.

Endurance to outlast the competition

Whether boldly initiating the launch of a startup or bravely pursuing an aggressive goal, endurance is an indispensable trait for tech teams seeking to withstand unseen trials ahead.

Amazon’s 26-year growth trajectory is oft-cited as the ultimate testament to endurance. Its commitment to steadily increase market share while charging customers as little as possible seemed like an audacious gambit. In 2018, when raising the price of its Prime subscription to $119, it confirmed one thing: Amazon’s relationship with its customers was at an all-time high. As 2018 wrapped up, the company posted a $10 billion profit, more than their net income for the prior decade.

This was nothing for Amazon. For its first 17 straight quarters after its initial public offering in May 1997, Amazon lost a combined total of $2.8 billion. Yet, Wall Street didn’t flinch. The company’s unyielding tolerance for loss only solidified its reputation with investors.

John Deere’s evolution into a Big Data evangelist offers yet another story of fortitude.

As the digital age was taking root, the legendary farm-machinery manufacturer began to realize that it could bestow its customers with something more valuable than the tractors and trailers it produced. John Deere could advise farmers on improving their crop yields.

This would involve partnering with a weather company and a telecommunications firm. From employing algorithms to determine which seeds to plant and at what temperatures to creating smart irrigation systems that turn on and off based on moisture levels, John Deere could give its loyal customer base the advantage of crowdsourced, real-time data. And by doing so, John Deere would bolster its position as a market leader and establish the means for future business growth, building on its truly remarkable 183-year legacy.

Key takeaways

  • Tolerate short-term loss for long-term gain.

  • Ensure your future by satisfying customers.

  • Find ways to always deliver inimitable value.

Post-race wrap-up

Startups and corporate stalwarts will attest that day-to-day survival (let alone, long-term success) in the tech industry can be an uphill battle. And there’s no cooling down. But like any worthwhile endeavor, fortune favors the prepared. And teams that show up with speed, strength and endurance write the playbook for success.