Five things the NCAA basketball tourney can teach your small business


For sports fans, the last two weeks of March inevitably bring forth a smorgasbord of men's and women's college basketball commonly known as March Madness. Business owners, on the other hand, may lament the arrival of the NCAA basketball tournament season as nothing more than a period of lost workplace productivity. But fear not. Not only are those statistics for productivity losses wildly over-inflated (for more on this, check out:, March Madness actually offers some worthwhile lessons to help you run your small company. So read on.


1. Reinforces the need for different definitions of "success:" Of the 129 school invited to the men's and women's NCAA Division I basketball tournament, only a dozen or so have a realistic chance at bringing home the two national championship titles. This doesn't mean that all but two teams should define their tournament experiences as failures, however. Indeed, most of the smaller schools and even some of the so-called mid-major colleges view getting to the NCAA tournament as a something of a victory. In one respect, it's easy to see why. This year, simply playing in a first-round game of the men's tournament earns a school $222,206 in TV-revenue sharing money from the NCAA. But even beyond that one-time payoff, a small, relatively unknown school sharing a nationwide stage with a perennial powerhouse like a Kansas, Duke, or Kentucky also brings with it the kind of priceless advertising and brand recognition that ripples far beyond the final score of one game.


Similarly, small businesses, particularly those just starting out, would be wise to keep their expectations for short-term "victory" grounded in reality as well. Your small company will rarely be a sales threat to an established brand name or big-box store starting out, so having more humble, attainable aspirations makes more sense. Merely getting your business name increasingly recognized by others or perhaps gaining the opportunity to share shelf space next to a more mature, established brand should be viewed as a real victory, even if you don't end up defeating your competition in sheer numbers.


2. Over time, surviving can eventually lead to larger success: Indianapolis-based Butler University is certainly not a basketball powerhouse on par with in-state rival Indiana University. The Indiana Hoosiers, after all, have won five NCAA national titles and 60 tournament games all-time, while the Butler Bulldogs didn't get their first tournament win until their fourth trip to March Madness, which didn't happen until 2001. However, after the school's initial tournament berth as a #14 seed in 1997, Butler notably improved its seeding each successive appearance, leading up to its first tournament victory. And despite the relatively quick exits of those early appearances, they nonetheless provided a great platform for that school's coaching staff to learn what it takes to perform against much bigger programs in pressured-packed situations. The pay off from all this experience is increasingly evident. Since that first March Madness win, Butler has appeared in the tourney five out of the past nine years (one more than Indiana over the same period), posted an impressive 7-4 record (including its two wins so far this year) and reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2003, 2007, and again this year.


The lesson here for small businesses is that persistence and continued improvement can pay off even if your company's initial forays into a crowded, cutthroat marketplace meet with failure. By sticking around long enough and learning from one's mistakes (and from your competitors' successes), an entrepreneur can better navigate the waters of the marketplace as well as better recruit the types of team members necessary to eventually help his or her business grow and prosper.

3. Beating the big boys may mean sticking to your game plan: One of most well-known upsets in March Madness history took place in the first round of the 1996 men's tournament, when unheralded Princeton, a #13 seed, shocked then defending national champion UCLA. The Tigers strategy for victory was to stick with the same methodical-some would say "outdated"-offense that they had used all season. Relying upon countless screens, passes, and backdoor cuts to slow the game to a crawl, Princeton frustrated the fast-paced Bruins, who had never practiced defending against such a system, and eked out a 43-41 victory in one of the lowest-scoring games in NCAA tournament history. And though not quite as dramatic, similar upsets happen nearly every year in March Madness's early rounds, as #14 Ohio's three-point shooting-fueled 97-83 victory over Big East powerhouse Georgetown last week proved.


Small businesses don't suffer from the same constraints or have to follow the same conventions that larger companies and multinational corporations often do. As a result, they can be more nimble and more in tune with what their customers want, even if that means taking a slightly unorthodox approach to sales or marketing. Larger competitors, however, may be unaccustomed to dealing with such an approach and poorly equipped to compete with it. Savvy entrepreneurs should look for these mismatches in business as well and not be afraid to exploit such an advantage--even against an intimidating foe--when it comes their way.


4. You don't have to defeat everybody out there: While the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments each feature more than five dozen teams, each year's respective champion only defeats six opponents.


Starting and running a small business can be a daunting proposition, especially since hundreds of other start-ups are launched every day as well. But it's important to remember that business is rarely a zero-sum game when it comes to resources or even customers. The true number of direct competitors in your market space is more likely to be a much smaller figure than it appears, and if you're launching a particularly innovative product, you might not have any real competition at all at the outset.


5. Sometimes your direct competition isn't whom you would expect: Each year, the NCAA tournament selection committee leaves some basketball fans scratching their heads after it announces which teams have been assigned to the four geographically-named brackets. This year, for example, Syracuse was seeded atop the West bracket while Kentucky was given the #1 spot in the East bracket. Likewise, in-state rivals New Mexico and New Mexico State wound up scattered among the East and Midwest brackets, respectively, meaning that couldn't have met until the national championship game. On the other hand, teams from Ohio University and Ohio State were grouped in the same half of the Midwest bracket. This annual seeding-or seed-scattering, if you like--ritual can make for strange bracket bedfellows, creating unexpected cross-country match-ups and prompting some fans to briefly become supporters of their fiercest archrivals.


With the advent of the Internet and the increasing ease in which even the smallest businesses can compete on a global scale, the idea that your direct competition is always the shop around the corner, in the next town over, or even within your same state should similarly be put to rest. Instead, entrepreneurs should be open to expanding their sense of their company's potential marketplace and to forging alliances with other local businesses they might have once have considered to be rivals.

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