Jiu-jitsu is known for enabling the smaller person to overcome the bigger person. How? What’s the secret? Positioning. From a good position, things are easy, from a bad one they are difficult. A big person you stand in front of is far more dangerous than one you stand behind.

The classic example from The Art of War: when fighting on a hill, fight from the top, facing downward. Gravity is on your side and works against the opponent. Even better is to have the sun behind you — it becomes difficult for the opponent to see. The idea is to find or create positions that have natural advantages.

Fifteen years ago, I had an idea for a large-scale impact project. It was going to take years just to articulate. Working 50 to 60 hours per week, I wasn’t in position to make it happen. I didn’t control my time. Entrepreneurship was the ultimate positional improvement because it would (eventually) give me the freedom to write when I wanted.
In jiu-jitsu, we say “Don’t try to win from where you are. Try to get into such a good position that winning is inevitable.” Rather than engage in direct battle from a weak position, position yourself so that all advantages are in your favor.

Positioning in business and/or marketing often refers to how an audience or a market sees a certain brand. Are they number one? Are they the coolest? Most reliable? This is an important factor, but one’s position in the traditional sense is made up of an array of factors. You may post losses this quarter but have just signed enough clients to make the next year better than the last decade. You may have lost your star salesperson, but actually improved team atmosphere. On paper, you are “losing”, but your position has improved.

Musk’s story is one of brilliant positioning. Dreaming of space travel since childhood, Musk developed a knack for technology early. At 12, he sold a video game he had developed on his own for $500. He studied science and economics before moving to California to start his PHD which he left after two days to start his first business, Zip2 with his brother for $28,000. Being ahead of the technology curve, Musk’s Zip2 served a market notoriously slow to adopt technology — newspapers — offering them city-guide software. Over four years, Zip2’s clients grew to over 160 major publications and was sold for $307 million. Musk received $22 million, with which, seeing an opportunity in online financial services, he launched x.com which later became PayPal. In 2002, eBay bough PayPal for $1.5 billion – Musk’s 11% share earned him $165 million. It was with this windfall, he was able to start his first space-travel company, Space X, as well as Tesla, Solar City, Hyperloop and more, and has positioned himself to actually shift the collective direction of humanity towards a bright, sustainable future.

What is happening in your market and in the world at large that you can leverage to better position yourself? What are the hidden strengths and weaknesses in your current position?