Trump’s Surprise Win: 4 Entrepreneurial Lessons

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump obviously did a lot of things right in his unlikely campaign to win the Presidency of the United States. Trump went from “long shot” or “not serious” candidate to surprise victor in the span of 18 months.

This article will make no political comment one way or another about Trump or Clinton. What we will look at are the strategies Trump used to make it to the Oval Office and how those strategies might translate to entrepreneurship.

Trump’s 4 Entrepreneurial Strategies

Lesson #1: Be “the Purple Cow”. Seth Godin’s classic business book Purple Cow, put forward a simple and powerful premise: if you find yourself riding down a road and see dozens or even hundreds of normal cows, you will never remark on them and might not even notice them. But, if you see a Purple Cow, your attention will be completely captured.

You might love the Purple Cow. You might hate it. You might simply be completed befuddled by it. But, you won’t ignore it. In fact, you will actively talk about the Purple Cow to everyone you meet for a time after you see it.

Trump came out of a field of 17 candidates in the Republic primary by being the Purple Cow. He behaved in a way that was completely different from the other candidates. Doing so, caused everyone – both those who agreed with him as well as those who disagreed with him – to talk about Trump. While pundits and voters were talking about Trump, all the “regular cows” were mostly ignored.

Every time that anyone talked about Trump, Trump won. Every mention of his name, positive or negative, increased his brand awareness and public profile over the seemingly nameless and faceless sea of 16 competitors that he was facing off with. Every conversation revolved around Trump, with conversations like “Trump vs. Bush”, “Trump vs. Cruz”, “Trump vs. Clinton”.

This is the power of being the Purple Cow. Everyone becomes aware of you. Even your haters fuel your momentum by raising your brand awareness. Being ignored, being forgotten is the real danger in any entrepreneurial or political endeavor. Candidates like Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina struggled to even be noticed. If you can’t even get someone’s attention you can never get their vote nor their business.

So, if you are in a crowded market with many competitors, like Trump was in the Republican primary, you must do something to stand out. Do something to get people talking about you, do something that people aren’t expecting from businesses like yours. You don’t have to be controversial (though you certainly can be if you wish), but, you must do something to separate yourself from the pack in the minds of the customer.

Lesson #2: If you want to achieve the extraordinary, you will often need to rethink the status quo. Most considered a Republican win or “wave” in this election highly unlikely. The political and demographic deck seemed stacked against, not only Trump himself, but, the GOP as a whole from the very beginning.

So, Trump took some unusual approaches. It’s easy to fixate on his controversial verbal statements, but, Trump made some very concrete departures from not only Democrats, but, the Republican party itself in policy areas like trade and immigration.

These stances, now, appear to be the key to his success. Instead of simply trying to be a traditional Republican, but, be, say, 15% better at running a campaign or delivering the message a little better than Mitt Romney or John McCain, Trump rethought what a Republican could look like entirely. To Republicans, a party built on free market ideologies, free trade has been a sacred cow and cornerstone of the party platform for decades.

But, Trump threw this free market stance completely out the window, saying he would put “America first” in trade. He promised to impose tariffs on companies that send jobs overseas and would seek to curb the common modern corporate America practice of “outsourcing” jobs to foreign firms. This message resonated with middle class workers who have been impacted by foreign outsourcing and trade deficits and, given results in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, many would argue that this single stance may have won Trump the Presidency.

What sacred cows exist in your industry? What if you did something completely different? What if you broke from the ranks of the regular playbook for your market and really shook things up? Is there a need in the market that you could perhaps fill? Instead of seeking to just be 10% better this year, what if you rethought your entire approach and did something completely new?

Lesson #3: Be #1 to someone or be nothing to everyone. Your business is far better served to find a niche or a group of customers who passionately believe in your message, product, service, or political candidacy.

In voting and in business, there is no value in being everyone’s #4 or #5 choice, even out of a field of only 10 competitors. Choice #4 or #5 ends up with no votes and no sales, because everyone goes for either their first choice or (maybe) their second choice. No one does business with #5. Customers or voters might kind of like of #5 and may even uniformly agree that #5 is a better choice than some other choice that they really dislike, but, they won’t buy or vote for choice #5.

However, there is tremendous value in being #1 in one or two niches. And, ironically, focusing on one niche will often yield far better results on the entire market in the long run rather than directly trying to please the whole market from the outset.

Take the case of Pepsi. Pepsi struggled to compete with Coca-Cola for years before their game-changing slogan “the Choice of the New Generation”. Conventional wisdom would have said this slogan was nuts, it appeared to be giving up on the middle age and senior citizen age brackets. But, from the campaign, Pepsi became not only the #1 cola with younger consumers, but, also gained major ground with older generations as well. If Pepsi had attempted just another “we are just like Coca-Cola, but, we’re better slogan” then they would have had an undefined brand and would have continued to wallow in mediocrity.

Starting with a niche and building from it is the key to success in the early days of business (or business turnaround) or a political candidacy.

Lesson #4: Get knocked down 100 times, get back up 101. When you look through both ancient and recent history, one trait unites all those who succeed – persistence.  Some were honest, some were not. Some were smart, some not so much. Some were talented, some were mediocre to worse. Some were hard working, and some were not. But, everyone who has succeeded has persisted and pushed through setbacks.

Trump faced numerous setbacks (some self-inflicted) and his entire campaign was derided by many as pointless. He faced withering criticism from, not only pundits and Democrats, but, from his own party leaders. This, combined with his poor polling numbers, could have easily led Trump to bow out of the race and this was suggested, and even demanded, by fellow Republicans at times.

Do you feel sure you are on to something, but, are close to quitting? What if you are 1 day, 1 week, 1 month from achieving breakthrough and you just don’t know it yet?

You will make mistakes, I will make mistakes. Donald Trump made mistakes in his campaign. But, Trump never let these mistakes define him and did not seem to dwell on them. There is always a new day and a new battle to fight and the Trump campaign seemed focused on that and pushed forward through all the adversity.

The secret of success in life lies in the fact that even if our batting average is less than stellar, even if we strike out 10 times in a row, we can give ourselves almost unlimited at-bats by simply getting up, dusting ourselves off, and trying again.

Failure in business or politics is rarely final and almost never fatal. You simply must decide to persist, to keep going, and to keep working toward your goal.

Bringing It All Together

The bottom line of all this is this: if you find yourself in a competitive field, be different in your marketing and promotion like the Purple Cow, rethink the status quo of what your business does and how it operates, and find a niche that really cares about what you are doing.

But, most importantly, never ever quit. You will face challenges, you will face setbacks, you will make terrible mistakes, and you will have disappointments. Keep getting back up to fight another day. Remember that every incredible accomplishment is always thought impossible all the way up until it is done.



Trey Sharp is an entrepreneur & author in Huntsville, AL. Trey is the former owner/CEO of a Huntsville-based technology company, Sharp Communication, which was sold to Mobile Communications America in 2018. In 2016, Trey co-founded technology startup Tango Tango where he served as CEO for nearly 2 years. Trey still serves as an active board member and shareholder in the company. Trey also serves as an active Board Member for Urban Engine, an entrepreneurial nonprofit in Huntsville, AL dedicated to spurring the growth of startups in North Alabama. Trey is married to Claire Sharp and the couple has 4 children. Trey earned his Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration from the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2002.

  • Claire Sharp says:

    Well written and I love “The Purple Cow.” Good points for all of us who are trying to make it in the business world.

  • Jason says:

    This was definitely a business strategy, start to finish. He knew the target audience well, made his pitch, and closed the deal. White voters who felt disenfranchised by outsourcing of jobs, afraid of being taken over by Mexicans and afraid of terrorist attacks, latched on hard to his divisive, but decisive rhetoric against these perceived evils. Maybe what seemed like maniacal babble was in reality a shrewd business plan, precisely executed…

  • >