Never call time out when you’re winning

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Everybody knows the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, and what happened to the rabbit when he stopped to rest on his cotton-tailed laurels. Well, I should have listened to Aesop. Like that rabbit, my cat-box filler business was racing full throttle in the 1960s. After 20 years of banging on the door, my pioneering Kitty Litter brand was a firm fixture in pet stores, and I had recently introduced my product under the Tidy Cat name into supermarkets. We were the only game in town — most towns anyway — and sales soared.

Such success spawned imitators as the 1970s began, but I wasn’t worried. Brands like Kitty Diggins and Go Cat Go came and went almost as quickly as a feline visit to the litter box, and I started feeling pretty invincible. With my business in a profitable cruise control, I shifted my attention to diversifying into other areas ranging from Frenchy Bucksaw firewood, cut on my own timber holdings, to creating an old-time “theme” town in Jones, Mich.

Poking holes in the invincible

Like the hare, I had developed a false sense of security. And I was caught napping when Clorox Co., a powerful veteran consumer marketer, eyed my turf and decided to scoop it up. Clorox launched Litter Green, a new filler made of alfalfa pellets, with the first national ad campaign in my industry, plus some cutthroat pricing in the grocery-store trenches. They could afford to spend big and take temporary hits; their assets were a Goliath next to my David. Plus Clorox had long-established distribution channels in the supermarkets I had entered only a few years earlier. By the time I jumped back on my feet, Clorox had grabbed 20% of the market directly from my pocket.

It’s Harder to Run From a Standstill

Unlike Aesop’s rabbit, I got back into the race in time by improving our product with the first deodorizing feature and running ads of my own. I eventually won back more than half the market share that Clorox had snatched from me, and I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t let up,especially when you’re ahead.

I’ve seen this truism played out time and time again, on many different playing fields of business and life. As a football season ticket holder at Notre Dame University, I’ve witnessed more than a few great games over the years. Team strategies have varied, but I have never, ever seen a coach call time out when his team was winning. When you have the momentum, the last thing you want to do is to put on the brakes.

It’s no different in business. I don’t think I was wrong in seeking new and different opportunities for Lowe Enterprises; that’s a natural and healthy behavior for entrepreneurs. My mistake was shifting the focus from my main business in the process — making myself vulnerable for a big player to move in with a ton of money and resources.

As entrepreneurs, we work so hard trying to generate attention for our products and services that we don’t always consider the downside of being noticed. You probably built your business by running hard, but in relative obscurity. When you break through to the top, everybody knows you’re the rabbit, and suddenly you are the one they’re now chasing. It’s time to turn on the juice even more.

This column is one in a series that will explore the thoughts, ideas and unadorned advice of an entrepreneur who made it, Edward Lowe. When he “brought the cat indoors” with a revolutionary cat-box filler, Kitty Litter, he created an industry that changed the lives of millions of cat lovers, not to mention cats. During his life, Ed Lowe used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these writings, revised and updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.

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Edward Lowe

During his life, Ed used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these articles, which have been updated after his death, offer value for both your business and personal life.