C-Suite Advisory

The Three Strategies Startup CEOs Should Employ on the Path to Unseating Larger Incumbents

  • While starting a company in an industry dominated by incumbent giants is a daunting task, success does not have to be elusive.
  • Often, newcomers have the advantage of being nimble, risk-seeking, and embody a go-getter attitude that together become a recipe for success.
  • All these attitudes can help an upstart carve out their own market share. I am keenly aware of the possibilities. 

When we started Nimbella in the serverless computing space we knew there were a lot of technological gaps but it was also a field which had established and well-known brands. However, in just over two years, despite having a small team, we are already sitting side-by-side with these companies in this category. This year, Forrester named us a strong performer in The Forrester Wave™: Function-As-A-Service-Platforms Q1 2021 report alongside Alibaba, Amazon, Google, Huawei, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Tencent. Earlier in the year, we were also named by CRN as one of the 20 coolest cloud infrastructure companies of the 2021 Cloud 100 alongside other major players in this space. These recognitions show me and others who are in a similar position what is possible. I believe there are three key strategies that helped my team get to where we are today that may serve as a blueprint for other startup founders and CEOs who are competing with giants to disrupt their industry.

Build the Best Product

It may seem obvious to say that the first step to building a successful business is building the best product, but the simple truth is that most companies don’t look to build the best product. Most want to build a very good product, one that fixes a major issue or inconvenience that the larger incumbents have failed to address and then cash out. That approach is just a shortcut to failure. If you want to make it in today’s market you have to start with a laser focus on an idea and build a product which either significantly disrupts a category or creates an entirely new one.

The key is to not be satisfied with an incremental improvement and to not do too much. As a startup you don’t have the financial or human capital to solve all of the issues at once. It’s a bit like being a world class gymnast, although your ultimate goal is to win the title as the best overall, you have to first be good enough to get gold in a specific event. Spreading yourself thin by doing too much is a sure way to end up settling for less than the best.

Speed Is Your Biggest Weapon

As a startup, you have the tremendous advantage of being able to employ an agile strategy. A smaller team does not have many of the inevitable bottlenecks that come with more established companies such as extensive approval cycles and product roadmaps that get determined many quarters out with little room for flexibility. A startup is free from having that burden. For example, at Nimbella, there is a small team of us that sets the product strategy and then we build, test, deploy, gather feedback, iterate, and repeat. Speed and nimbleness are our biggest advantages. Our agile strategy allows us to quickly adapt to market changes and continuously improve our product to best meet market demands.

When businesses reach a certain size, opportunities that come through the door become a careful game of weighing the pros and cons. They absolutely need to do this because it does not make sense to pursue every opportunity and even weighing all options can become a time sink. Larger enterprises simply don’t  have the time to do so. This inevitably means that some opportunities may fall through the cracks if they are not presented in the right way to even make it past gatekeepers. Startups, most of the time, don’t have the luxury of this problem as we won’t have nearly the volume of incoming requests. While some see this as a challenge of being a newcomer, I actually see it as an advantage. My mantra at this early stage is that we should not take any business opportunity for granted. We never deny getting featured and the chance to get noticed by our target audience even if the reach is small. We always investigate cold emails because you never know when and where a valuable opportunity could arise and we never miss out on the opportunity to collect feedback from customers. I find that keeping an open mind and humble attitude ensure that we fairly evaluate all opportunities that come our way and never let a good one pass.

Grow Responsibly and Empower your People :

Many startups may work to appear “bigger” than they are for a variety of reasons such as to gain increased credibility or “punch above their weight.” However, in the process of doing this, I have seen some fall into the trap of losing the most valuable asset to a young company – the startup spirit. The startup spirit is when the entire team feels like they are part owners of the business rather than only employees. They feel responsible for the startup’s growth and are invested in its ultimate success. This is hard to come by in larger enterprises, but in a startup environment when every member is working on the product and engaging with customers, this can and should be the norm. So in the process to appear bigger, ensure that you don’t inadvertently adopt some of the downsides of being big, such as cumbersome hierarchies that discourage all employees to feel that they are a part of the founding team.

It’s important to remember that growing the business doesn’t always require hiring more people. Create core teams for every needed function, outsource the functions that are not core. Mistakes happen but you can course correct by failing fast. Hire the best people for the job, empower them and engage with your early customers at all levels.

While a young company may not have the monetary, people and resource power of incumbents, it can still absolutely make a run for the same market and even disrupt entire industries. Many startups have already proven this is possible. It’s just about employing the right strategies and having the appropriate mindset so that you can take advantage when the market is favorable.–

Written by Anshu Agarwal.

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Anshu Agarwal
Anshu Agarwal is the CEO and co-founder of Nimbella, a serverless cloud provider. She has over 20 years of experience in the technology industry, building and evangelizing products that have solved real-world problems for organizations large and small across the globe.

She served on the Board of Directors of the OpenDaylight Project, Linux. Prior to Nimbella, she successfully led product and marketing teams at four infrastructure startups: Cedexis (acquired by Citrix, 2018), ConteXtream (acquired by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, 2015), Ankeena Networks (acquired by Juniper Networks, 2010), and Speedera Networks (acquired by Akamai, 2005). Anshu holds a B.S. E.E. from IIT/Roorkee, India; M.S. E.E. from Rutgers; and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.


Anshu Agarwal is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.