Technology, Flexibility, Simplicity – Disrupting a Medal Machine

30/08/2016
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You have to feel sorry for Team GB’s cycling rivals. Well, a little bit sorry. Perhaps not but, for the sake this article, let’s pretend. With the Olympics and Britain’s Olympic success dominating the front and back pages of every newspaper, it seems apt to tie an article in with the national mood. However, despite their phenomenal success in the velodrome, the British track cycling team isn’t going to be ‘case study one’.

Team GB’s track cycling setup is nearly all-powerful. The team is nicknamed ‘The Medal Factory’ and every rider is returning home with at least one piece of Olympic neckwear. They are the established, well-funded, dominant force – which is why their rivals are interesting. From the point of view of the start-ups, disruptors and potential gamechangers of this world, how do you take on a giant?

A new company can’t hope to achieve success just by being a carbon copy of an existing business. Something has to be different or the bigger fish will always win. Team GB’s dominance continued this summer, but there were chinks in the (lycra) armour and inspiration to be taken on how to compete with, and even how to get one over on the big players.

Technology always provides an opportunity. The USA’s technological gamble didn’t pay off, but you can appreciate the concept. Moving the chain to the left-hand side shifted their bikes’ centre of gravity to the inside of the velodrome. It wasn’t enough on the day, but came close to causing an upset and demonstrated how the early adoption of new technology can potentially shift the balance. Early implementation of new software to speed up a system or process, improve internal communication or to reach new customers could bring the edge a company needs.

Flexibility is often the secret weapon of the underdog. On the track, Team GB wore the optimum racing skinsuit. Time and money had been poured into finding the best possible garment. The Italian team that claimed gold in the Omnium recognised that each race of the event took place at a different speed and created a suit for every occasion. With less bureaucracy and fewer moving parts, smaller companies can offer bespoke solutions more easily – offering a tailored service to each client rather than a package.

Simplicity and finer detail can become lost as a company grows. However, as they say in insect numeracy classes, it’s the little things that count. Simple, efficient solutions are another trademark of start-ups. Top of the range skinsuits are all well and good until you stick a very un-aerodynamic safety pin in them to fix on your number. The Netherlands, who took gold in the women’s Keirin, had transparent pouches for their numbers built into their suits.

Coming up against world-leading rivals forces people to start thinking laterally and triggers innovation. Small businesses may not have tech labs and research divisions refining software and kit but have a closer ear to the ground – you may network with somebody developing genuinely new technology. Start-ups are more flexible and can adapt not only to new situations but to the clients’ needs. In a smaller business on a smaller scale, key details and simple solutions do not get lost – they can be seized upon and leveraged to your advantage. Celebrate Team GB’s success, but keep an eye on the competition and what you can learn – subtle improvements can have a disproportionate impact.

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