Real Time Strategy – Small Businesses Can Learn from Cargo Vessels

In 2021, the cargo ship Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal when high winds and low visibility caused it to ram into the side of the waterway. I took 6 days to get it free.


Cargo ships have become enormous. Many are “as long as the Empire State Building is tall” and carry well more than 10,000 containers. It takes nearly 2 miles to go from full speed to stop.


Fittingly, the time it takes to turn or maneuver a large ship has made it a common metaphor in business. Large businesses take a long time to respond to anything. Therein lies the opportunity for small businesses.


Forsaking the long annual strategy cycle and instead developing strategy in real time, small businesses can not only respond more quickly to changing market conditions, they can influence markets in their favor.


Small businesses can develop strategies to beat their large competitors in many ways. Here are just three advantages for small businesses.


Faster innovation. Bureaucracies are risk averse and stifle innovation so much that you rarely see a breakthrough come from a large business. Consider how Apple and Microsoft unseated industry leaders IBM and HP in the 80s. It takes large companies months just to make small product changes and years (if ever) to develop significant new products. Small businesses, on the other hand, are often the source of innovation in industries and can get to market much, much faster.

Ability to Serve Market Niches. Large companies are designed to “produce at scale”. That means they will actually turn away from opportunities that small businesses can thrive on. Kraft Foods sold a profitable $100 million business once because it “lacked scale”.

Meaningful Differentiation. Because they want large scale mature markets, many big businesses are often selling undifferentiated products. But small businesses can do things that big businesses can’t or won’t do. A successful small community bank in rural Nebraska does things for their customers and the community that large banks would never replicate.


Small businesses in several industries are living proof that when built into a robust strategy that is managed in real time, these advantages and more give small businesses the edge they need to win against big business.