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The Underdog Effect

Authored by: Gary Pedroza, Co-Founder

Have you ever heard a story where a man/woman/team/company overcome great obstacles, hardships and adversity to achieve success? I am sure you have. It is known as “The Underdog” story and it could be a movie genre within itself. For example, there is David and Goliath, Rocky, Rudy, Cinderella Man, Invincible, The Pursuit of Happiness, Miracle, The Karate Kid, Remember the Titans . . . you get the point. It is a familiar storyline in Hollywood, but also a phenomenon in business, where individuals are faced with one business challenge after another, and while the odds are against them, they persevere and come out victorious.

So here, I salute my top five favorite underdog companies of all time.

Ben & Jerry’s
Childhood friends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, opened their first ice cream store in a renovated gas station in Vermont. These two college dropouts, who originally learned their craft from a $5.00 mailer, struggled with finances and managing their first employees, consisting mostly of family and friends. All whilst battling heavy competition from Häagen-Dazs, who were set on limiting Ben & Jerry’s distribution within Boston. However, even with the odds against them, the founders didn’t give up. Early in the game, the two decided to capitalize on their individuality by creating bizarre ice cream flavor names like Schweddy Balls, Black and Tan, and Taste the Lin-Sanity. Surprisingly, this irreverent ploy worked! Ben & Jerry’s unique flavors helped them stay relevant and go viral with customers – before the existence of social media. Today, you can find the iconic pints in almost every grocery store across the country.

Chipotle Mexican Grill
Most of Steve Ells’ friends thought he had lost his mind when he quit his job at the noteworthy restaurant, Stars, in San Francisco to open a burrito joint in Colorado. Ells started Chipotle with money he had borrowed from family and friends, with the original intent for the restaurant to be a fine-dining concept. However, the fine-dining restaurant never happened, but Chipotle did. Working tirelessly and investing his time and money, Ells eventually grew a simple burrito business into an enterprise, attracting the attention of McDonald’s, which in 1998, invested $360 million dollars into the business. This investment rocketed Chipotle to even greater heights, eventually leading to 2,000 locations, more than 45,000 employees world-wide, and as of 2015, a net income of $475.6 million.

Tesla Motors
It is difficult for me to see Elon Musk as anything other than the greatest industrialist genius of our lifetime, but he didn’t start that way. For years, Elon’s critics labeled him as the unrealistic Silicon Valley millionaire and delusional playboy bound to blow his fortune playing factory with electric cars and spaceships. It took time, but Tesla has now become the first successful automotive startup in the United States since Walter Chrysler founded Chrysler Corporation in 1925. Tesla, the electric-vehicle company, single handedly has changed the perception of the American people that having an efficient car, doesn’t mean it is slow, aesthetically displeasing, expensive, or that it isn’t feasible for mass production. The company has leapt years ahead of its competition and as a result, the remaining car manufacturers have been caught lagging behind, looking for any way to catch up with the market’s appetite for zero emission vehicles.

SpaceX Exploration
At the same time Tesla Motors was taking shape, Elon Musk went to pursue his childhood dreams of spaceships and intergalactic travel. Musk realized that the only way human kind would relive past dreams of moon expeditions and space exploration came down to one thing – affordability. By fabricating space rockets with commercially available parts and building re-usable rockets, he did just that, decreasing the costs of commercial space travel ten-fold. SpaceX is now saving billions of dollars for the NASA space program, and is blowing away NASA’s existing contractors: Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.; who together, held what was essentially a monopoly on NASA’s space flights. Today, SpaceX designs and fabricates close to 100% of their rocket parts in California, near Silicon Valley, while Boeing and Lockheed Martin rely on Russian and Chinese companies to build rocket engines.

Apple Inc.
Perhaps one of the most polarizing brands in the marketplace, you can’t deny that Apple might be the biggest underdog story in the world of technology. Steve Jobs was a dyslexic, college drop out. Steve Wozniak was once expelled from the University of Colorado, Boulder. However, together they started what today is considered one of the most valuable companies in the world. Beginning in Job’s parent’s garage, Apple I and Apple II emerged and as Job’s so eloquently phrased it, Apple went into thermo-nuclear war with the original tech giant at the time, IBM. With a core of innovation and nonstop exploration into various technologies, the company continues to develop products that enhance the lives of their consumers.

Common Factors for Underdog Success
All of the above case studies are examples of companies who have found incredible success. While each story is unique and different, they all share the following traits; innovation, forward-thinking and a fearlessness to take risks during crucial times. From a fast food chain to Silicon Valley startup, these stories should give hope to individuals who perhaps lack the financial backing or perfect pedigree, but possess a passion and determination to beat the odds and write their own underdog story.



  • Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future


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