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Be Where the Pucks Going To Be

The "Great One" said it best

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, when asked how he was always on the puck before anyone else, pointed out that he was by no means the fastest skater on the ice. Instead he explained that he always just focused on skating toward where the puck was going to be. Gretzky knew that if he couldn't be the fastest in the middle of the game, he would have to figure out how to stay ahead of the game.

Sometimes trying to keep up in the middle of the game is a wasted effort, especially if you're not necessarily the fastest company in your market. Instead of wasting your energy trying to keep up with the big boys, think like Wayne and get your edge by moving ahead of the game.

If you can't move faster, take a shortcut

Taking a shortcut really means getting a sense for where the market will be at some point in time and heading in that direction now. It's a lot easier to defend a space before people start fighting for it, especially if no one else realizes it's valuable yet. Taking the shorter path allows you to get in early and pick up a lot of the low hanging fruit.

Fortify your position

Chances are you're going to have a limited amount of time before the competition realizes they also need to be where you are. You need to spend this valuable time fortifying your position as best you can with your available resources.

If your business involves intellectual property that you can potentially patent, even provisional patent can be a valuable tool to ward off the competition. Additionally, you may be able to land some early customers with exclusive agreements that provide an effective barrier to entry to later participants. Keep in mind that you gain a potentially huge advantage from building early relationships in your space before your competition or your customers even know how big it could potentially be. Definitely take advantage of this.

Stay ahead of the puck, not out of the game

There is a big difference between being ahead of the puck, and being out of the game entirely. When thinking about where the market is headed, it's important to have a reasonable expectation of when the rest of the action will catch up to you. Sure, someday we'll all be flying around like George Jetson in hover cars, but before you build the next Spacely Sprockets to manufacture them, you may want to have a good guess when the future is going to show up at your doorstep.

Often when you progress ahead of the existing market you get into a position where there few (if any) customers looking to buy. To avoid this, it's helpful to pick a point ahead of the game that gives you a first-to-market advantage but still leaves you enough room to do business in the with current customers. Startup companies are often strapped for cash, so being too far ahead of the curve without any ability to generate revenue while everyone catches up can be disastrous.

Keep your eye on the game

Like a hockey game, the business world is in constant flux. It's almost certain that the path of progress will change as time goes by. This is fine as long as you continue to adapt your position to fit the path. If you ignore the changes in the existing market you may find that the "market-leading" position you created for yourself is not ahead of the game, but rather in the wrong game altogether.

Promote your early position

A nice benefit to being "first to market" in a new segment is the ability to claim that title early on. Claiming your "number one" status early on will help you build your position among customers, investors and even competitors. Even later on when the market catches up you may still be able to use your "we were the first" claim to legitimize the forward looking position of your product and your business.

Take your shot

With the right timing and some careful planning you will find yourself in the right place at the right time, with a healthy lead on your competition. This means it's no longer time to "plan for the market" but instead to execute on all of the planning you have put in place. Don't hesitate here. Your early lead is only valuable if you use it to not only get ahead of the market, but stay ahead of the market.

Keep Moving

Some companies make their legacy from making one move ahead of the market at the right time and reaping the rewards for a lifetime. Short of making such a lucky move, you're going to have to keep looking for new opportunities to take shortcuts and play ahead of the game. Hey, it worked for Wayne.

- Wil

Wil Schroter is a serial entrepreneur, author, and public speaker. Wil has been recognized as U.S. Small Business Person of the Year, twice as the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year (1999 & 2004), and is a member of the Business First Top 40 under forty. Connect directly with Wil at wschroter@yahoo.com. Visit http://www.goBIGnetwork.com.

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