Anatomy of an Upset

Anatomy of an Upset

By Diane Harrison

Everyone loves an underdog. While superheroes have their fans, there’s something about a dark horse or a comeback kid that generates support for a hard-won victory. Take the recent US Open tennis championship match between Serena Williams, the sports media’s proclaimed GOAT (Greatest of All Time) and arguably the most dominant women’s tennis player ever, and 19-year old Canadian upstart, Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu stunned US fans, sports media, and Serena herself by winning the 2019 Open in straight sets, beating back the legend’s late surge to close out the victory in commanding style. It was truly a modern-day David and Goliath moment.


In the alternative investments world, there exists a perpetual David and Goliath struggle between emerging, niche, and small-scale funds and the behemoth organizations that run the lion’s share of hedge fund and private equity money. Giant funds are virtually self-perpetuating machines, with plenty of financial cushion for riding out dry spells in management or performance issues. Small funds are in a constant battle to win over new money, meet expenses and development needs, and recruit top talent. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it in his book, ‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,’ “People can lack resources and power and all kinds of material blessings, but they are forced to develop their wits.”

It’s hard to be an underdog in the alternative investment world—a fact we know all too well. But rather than bemoan the myriad of hardships and failures that litter this universe, let’s take a look at some qualities that help underdogs succeed. Andreescus exist in this world, and can thrive with the right behaviors.


One: Keep Your Eye On The Prize. When you start from behind, you have no choice but to persevere or go under. To achieve success,  having focused goals including attracting the right investors and scaling operations appropriately creates an environment in which fund managers with a refined strategy and efficient business management can achieve greatness in their own right, and provide benefits to the discerning investment partners who discover them.

Two: The Power Of Positivity. One of the ‘underdog attributes’ that contributes to success is an uncommon reservoir of self-belief. Heroes can be sustained by the belief of others in their superiority, but the dark horses are often fueled by an internal conviction that they can succeed against all odds. Underdogs don’t quit in the face of hardship; rather, they rise to meet challenges on a daily basis, and grow stronger for it.

Three: Learn To Do More With Less. Developing critical coping and problem-solving skills are essential to underdogs because, frankly, they face more of both situations based on an inherent disadvantaged status. This translates to limited financial and business resources that can be leveraged to their utmost advantage, including strategic partnerships when and where they make sense.

Take the example of the apparel company brand, Life is Good. The company was started by two brothers with $200 in 1989, selling T-shirts on college campuses from the back of a van. By 2014, the company had passed $100M in revenues. According to Investopedia’s online article this past June, “10 Surprising Companies That Began as Underdogs,” “The brand avoided traditional in-your-face marketing. Instead, they threw Pumpkin Patch Festivals and gave proceeds to charity, spreading awareness through word of mouth. The Life Is Good Company has two key initiatives, to spread the power of optimism and to help children in need by donating 10% of net profits.”

Four: Face The Fear and Conquer It.  Underdogs find ways to succeed, including forging smart and results-driven relationships. They don’t avoid the competition; they study them, and learn from the experience. And sometimes, a competitor can turn into an ally, or an investment partner, such as below.

Another of the underdog stories from the article above describes the often-studied ice cream success of Ben & Jerry’s. “…childhood best friends began their journey by enrolling in a $5 ice cream making course. In 1978, the entrepreneurs scraped up $12,000 in order to open their first store in a renovated gas station. Come 1980, the hippie team distributed to local grocery and Mom & Pop stores out of Cohen’s Volkswagen Squareback. Häagen-Dazs (Pillsbury Company) attempted to halt distribution of the newcomers in Boston, prompting a “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” customer campaign. In 1999, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. sold to Unilever for $326 million, while maintaining the company’s brand management and social mission through an independent Board of Directors.”

Five: Keep The Blinders Off, And Clear-Eyed Vision Intact. While underdogs are often underrated, leaders can fall prey to being overrated. Underdogs who rise to their challenges are able to see both themselves clearly to course-correct their journey as needed, and keep an analytical focus on how competitive leaders offer opportunities to best them.

One last David and Goliath example story is from’s 2017 online article, ‘Stories Of The Underdog: Companies Succeeding Despite The Odds.” Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm was created in 1991, and reinvented the company’s original focus on beeswax candles with an all-natural lip balm product at a time when such products were the exception rather than the rule.

As the article summarizes, “By 1999 Burt’s Bees was global. Their branding really took the spotlight in 2007 when they established ‘The Greater Good’ business philosophy; beauty products that are good for you, good for us, and good for all. Their illustrated imagery and warm color scheme that’s prevalent in their branding evokes the all-natural, personal, inviting feel of the business. In an industry overflowing with cool blues, greens, and sometimes even stark white lip balm, and sleek, modern beauty products, Burt’s Bees is a welcomed contrast. Clorox purchased this company in late 2007 for a sum of $925,000,000. Not bad for a small local honey producer.”


The investment Davids facing industry Goliaths need to keep all these qualities in mind as they gear up to do battle each day. Underlying all of the tactics and motivators shared by successful under dogs is an ability to form personal relationships and convert skeptics to believers. They also share a healthy measure of passion, talent, and old-fashioned grit. And finally, they possess resilience and an ability to keep moving. After all, most of the Goliaths started their professional lives as Davids in their own right.

 Diane Harrison is principal and owner of Panegyric Marketing, a strategic marketing communications firm founded in 2002 specializing in alternative assets.  She has over 25 years’ of expertise in hedge fund and private equity marketing, investor relations, articles, white papers, blog posts, and other thought leadership deliverables.

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