Jim Duffy: Even Apple and Dyson had a Rocky start as underdogs

The Rocky movies highlight the classic struggle of the underdog
The Rocky movies highlight the classic struggle of the underdog
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There’s a brilliant line in the movie Glengarry Glenross when Al Pacino, the top salesman at the company, is giving his thesis on life to a colleague who is not doing so well. Over an evening drink before they start work, he tells him: “if everyone says one thing, then I say bet the other way.” He’s a bit of a geezer and a tad entrepreneurial in how he thinks and acts, but it makes me think about the status quo and how sometimes it’s good to bet on the underdog.

Some of us are just geared that way in that we like to see the underdog do well or surprise everyone. Let’s face it, who would have thought that Jeremy Corbyn would still be leader of the Labour Party today? Yet, as the perceived underdog he has massive grassroots support, has significantly increased the Labour Party membership numbers and is still toughing it out - albeit with mixed support on his backbenches. There is no doubt that he is from a different mould when compared and contrasted to Ed Miliband or Tony Blair. He doesn’t do the PR well and looks a bit awkward and he will never win at PMQs. But, a larger grouping in society really like him. And I’m betting a big percentage of that cohort like the underdog battle that is going on. Where it will all end is anyone’s guess.

In the sports arena, many of us like to see the underdog win against the odds. When Andy Murray was just a boy, we all loved that he was a wee Scottish laddie from a broken marriage who had toiled away to reach Wimbledon. We loved the notion of this new talent that was raw and kept getting cramp on court. We loved his awkwardness in front of the camera and that his mum was always there cheering him on. We loved that he came from a small town and was not mass produced in one of our cities. When all put together cumulatively, Andy Murray was the best emotionally drawing limpet underdog we have had for some time. I can see a movie coming out at some point. Well, if Eddie the Eagle is in the cinema why not Andy?

We love a good underdog at the movies. In fact Hollywood was built on action movies where the human spirit was lifted by the performance of the underdog. Movies like Pretty Woman, where a street hooker – Julia Roberts – ends up winning the heart of the multi-millionaire – Richard Gere. With an endearing charm she battles the snobbery of the circles he moves in to win through, win us over and keep every wee girl’s dream alive. Movies like Rocky … I guess that’s why Sly Stallone could make so many of them – because they were so popular.

The Rocky movies capture so much emotion and highlight that the underdog – in this case, the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa – is so ordinarily human and down to earth. He lives in a hovel, falls for the geeky girl who works in the pet shop - whose brother Pauly is an alchoholic - and he is trained by Micky, who is street tough and as bitter at they come. But with hard work and some luck, Rocky endures to win the hearts and minds of the crowd and the city of Philadelphia. It’s also a very decent reminder that not all American Italians in movies were mobsters and Mafioso. Rocky the underdog tugs on our heart-strings and we are willing him to win so we can hear that immortal cry…. “Adrian!”

So why are we so obsessed with underdogs and why do the hairs on the back of our necks stand up when we see an underdog win, conquer or overcome? Is it part of our DNA in fight or flight? Is it that it conjures up romantic notions? I’m not sure. All I do know is that I love a good underdog - especially in business.

Never has there been such an exciting time to start or grow a business. But underdogs in business these days are called disruptors. Whether they are changing the way we bank as with the new challenger banks, changing the way we eat with food subscription boxes or changing the way we record and validate provenance in products using blockchain technology. But the best quality I really love to see in a new underdog business is the humility of the founder and team coupled with that brazen confidence that they can achieve anything. With nothing to lose and everything to gain and a heart the size of a football, the underdog entrepreneur is an amazing creature to work with, support and challenge.

Imagine working at Apple in the late 1970s when it was the underdog to IBM. Imagine working with Michael Dell in the mid 80s when he started out. Imagine working with James Dyson in the early 80s when he was being knocked back left, right and centre as he brought his underdog cyclonic technology to the vacuum market. The buzz of working with these underdogs must have been fantastic. And they just keep coming…

Last week I was speaking at the launch of the new Entrepreneurial Spark Hatchery in Milton Keynes. I met so many underdogs with 
stories to tell and new products they wanted to bring to market in a 
different way. I could feel the passion and drive and angst as they knew the battle they would have in doing all of this.

There is a palpable energy around an underdog, whether it be in the sporting context, the movies or in business. It’s unmistakable and one can almost touch it.

That’s why I love what I do and work where I work. It’s like Underdogs Anonymous, where people want to change and build, adapt, flex and pulse as they fight the world and the battle within themselves. I’m going into a meeting in a couple of hours with an underdog. She’s a hard worker and has some real magic about her. She doesn’t know it, but she makes my day…. And makes me want to help her win big!

Agitator and disrupter Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark