The first time I heard this advice from my Dad, he was teaching me (a right hander) to bat left handed. At the time, I was still young enough and naive enough to think that he invented the phrase.
In fact it was coined by Wee Willie Keeler, a great hitter in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and at 140 pounds and maybe 5 feet, 4 inches, one of the smallest players ever in professional baseball.
The point is, you can hit the ball hard but if you hit it right at someone, it’s a likely out. Alternatively, you can hit the ball softly, but if you place it between fielders, it’s a sure hit.
It’s true in baseball and it’s true in business.
Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Arkansas. The second store was in Harrison, Arkansas, population 6000. His eighth store was his first outside of Arkansas, in the thriving metropolis of Sikeston, Missouri. Sam hit ‘em where KMart and Woolworth weren’t. By the time he has expanded to the same markets as the leaders, Wal-Mart had the profits, growth and momentum to compete, and eventually crush KMart and Woolworth.
Before you buy a plane ticket to Arkansas, understand that “where they ain’t” doesn’t necessarily mean geography. In the 1950s and 1960s, Joe Flom hit ‘em where they weren’t by taking on the work that the traditional, white-shoe law firms disdained: litigation and proxy fights. By helping position his law firm, Skadden Arps as M&A specialists, Flom and his partners dominated when relaxed federal regulations and the internationalization of markets in the 1970s resulted in a boom in the number and size of corporate takeovers. By carving out the niche and doing the work nobody wanted to, when the tidal wave hit, Flom and his partners were the default experts. Being experts in the complex world of M&A allowed Skadden Arps to spread into every area of old-line work and by 1989 had gross revenues of $517.5 million dollars, making them at the time, the world’s richest law firm.
Whether geography or area of focus, listen to Wee Willie Keeler and hit ‘em where they ain’t.