What’s Wrong with the Middle of the Pack?

Today was Masters Sunday if you like golf (or you’re a general sports fan). If not, it was just Sunday. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be about sports. Well not much. Just a quick sports metaphor, and I’m out- OK?  For the non-golfers, the Masters is one of the four biggest golf tournaments every year- called “the majors.”

Professional golfers play 4 day tournaments.  Thursday and Friday the group gets whittled down to the final group that “makes the cut,” and gets to play Saturday and Sunday. Traditionally, Saturday is called “moving day.” This is the day the players get a bit more aggressive as they try to move up the leader board for a win on Sunday. As a result, you’ll see players make huge moves up in the standings. You’ll also see some that initially played very well, seem to whither under the pressure dropping way back to the middle of the pack or worse, knowing that just making the cut assures them a pretty good pay day.

This is the same pattern businesses in every industry follow as competition heats up. Whether it’s new competition or a shrinking market, or a bad economy, some will rise the the occasion, some will drop back to the middle of the pack and make enough money to get by, and others will fail to make the cut.

Is the middle of the pack so bad?

In golf, the top money earners make between $6-10 million.  In 2011, the player right in the middle of the money list – Angel Cabrera, won $628,079. (Incidentally, just now, Angel came in second at the 2013 Masters, earning an estimated $864,000).  So let’s bring this to business because those numbers translate well.

If you’re operating a small business with $628,079 in gross revenue, you’re probably making a decent living. Profit margins vary, but you’re probably not struggling to pay the bills, you don’t sweat payroll, you’re doing pretty well. You may be doing very well. Easy to be content there.

Let’s say the leaders in your industry are earning $6-$8 mill. They’re playing on a much higher level. But they probably have budget meetings, and HR issues, and marketing campaigns, and really have to work at it.  If you’re just starting out, you may not even think you’re capable of playing at that level. And you may not be.

But how do you find out where you belong?

You do the work. You put in your practice time and learn as much as you can. You try as much as you can in as many different ways as you can think of, to gain a competitive advantage.  You constantly ask if your product or service is as good as it can be, and work at making sure it is. You work with people (coaches, partners, mentors) who push you and teach you things you’re smart enough to realize you don’t know. When opportunities come (and they always do if you’re doing the work) you get to find out where you stack up.

You’ll fail. Big time. When you do, will you wither and die, or work hard and triumph next time? Another quick golf story- In April 2011, 21 year old Rory McIlroy had a 4 stroke lead going into the final day of the Masters.  He still had a 1 stroke lead going into the last half of the round, then he fell apart.  He completely imploded, and finished 15th. This 21 year old kid “choked” in front of millions on a worldwide stage with EVERYONE in his industry watching. Can you imagine? So how did this 21 year old handle it? Just 2 months later the then 22 year old won the US Open (another major by the way).  He didn’t  just win, he led from start to finish, and won shattering records. Now that’s a comeback.

So as you build your businesses, give some thought to where you want to be in the pack.  Maybe it’s the middle. Let’s not knock the middle! The middle is usually pretty safe. It’s a great place to get by. Until moving day when the competition gets stiff and your market shrinks, and the economy takes a bad turn.

Moving up the leader board on moving day takes work. I hope you’ll keep training, keep learning, pitch companies you think are just a bit out of your reach, and take on projects that push the limits of what you think you’re good at so you get better. I hope when you fall flat on your face you’ll turn inward to find the confidence to come back hard. I hope you’ll find yourself on the top of the leader board.