The 800 Pound Gorilla Problem

I was at a board meeting recently where the board and management was discussing the company’s market position. This is a strong company that leads its market and, as a result, one of the board members stated that we were “the 800 pound gorilla in the market.”  In my world view, the market was still relatively small so I suggested that we were the 12 pound gorilla.  While this got a chuckle, it was instructive and moved the conversation down an interesting path.

If the 800 pound gorilla comment had stuck without any discussion, I expect the management team and board (me included) would have leaned back in our chairs, smiled, and indulged ourselves in a moment of self congratulation.  And it’s warranted, as this company has been around for a while and has built a strong, profitable business that is in fact the leader in its market.

However, the market is still relatively small.  It’s growing – and growing quickly now – but it took five years for it to really mature into an interesting market.  We lead the market and continue to be very effective at winning the vast majority of the new business that is out there.  But to view ourselves as an 800 pound gorilla would be an error in my book.

Instead of relaxing, we reset the conversation and said “well – if we are a 12 pound gorilla, what do we need to do to become a 100 pound gorilla on our way to becoming the 800 pound gorilla?”  We decided we could easily become a 24 pound gorilla just based on the growth of the market.  But this isn’t interesting to us, so we’ve got to do more.  What the “more” is started to come out of the discussion we had which I expect will be continued over the next month as the company determines which new products to invest in during 2010.

I find myself in many situations where the words matter a lot.  I enjoy quirky phrases (like Todd Vernon’s “chocolaty goodness”) that help focus the discussion.  The next time you start talking about the gorilla in the market (whether it is you or someone else), make sure you determine whether it’s 800 pounds or 12 pounds – I expect your actions will be very different depending on the answer.

  • Hey Brad. I love gorillas. You should plug friend-a-gorilla. But more importantly for now, not all 12 pound gorillas grow up to be King Kong. It takes lots of bananas, hard work and more then a little luck. I have written more on this at my blog

    • Good post – I especially like “smoking your own socks” – I expect I will use that in the future.

  • Nice analogue 🙂

    Of recent months I've been trying to catch myself when I'm thinking "this is the end"—or 800 pound Gorilla. Once I've caught myself I shift my thinking to "this is the beginning"—or the 12 pound Gorilla.

    One end is another beginning, we just need to remember it. In recent months that's been a great motivator upon myself.

  • Just some related thoughts/questions…

    Is Craigslist an "800 pound gorilla"?

    If yes – in what sense? What is "big" in their case?

    Obviously, it's not the "shareholder value"… It's more like the "value" they "leave on the table"… by giving "the bulk of the benefits to the network itself" (

    How did CL achieve their "800 pound gorilla" status – by "growing" the classifieds market or by "shrinking" it (by "destroying value")? Is the classifieds market now "bigger" or "smaller"…?

    What did CL "do more"… or less? Or did they simply went "less is more"…?

    • Interesting example.  I haven’t spent enough time thinking about Craigslist in this context.  I guess I don’t view them as the 800 lb Gorilla – maybe the 800 lb Gorilla destroyer!

      • BTW… I guess the board meeting was the "powerpointless" one of Return Path.

        Does IntenseDebate use Return Path services? Because Gmail promptly sent the ID email notification (about your reply here) to the Spam folder.

  • Its not the gorillas that are killing me, its the elephants occupying all of the space!! At least gorillas telegraph their moves…. Elephants don't leave any room! (Wikipedia is an elephant turning pink, Google is almost the elephant but with gorilla agility, etc)

    BTW, aren't 12 lb gorillas more like chimps?

    Best wishes, happy holidays – jws

    • Matt Kissner

      I have found that the "800 pound gorilla syndrome" can become a danger to successful organizations. First, it breeds a sense of complacency and over confidence where you stop respecting and learning from competitors. Having great competitors is a blessing as it keeps you on your game. Second, overconfidence with success can create a limiting frame of reference in looking at the world which is shaped by the factors which drove that success, and limits the ability to see threats and change outside that "window"

  • If you are a start-up or an emerging company and there is already an '800 lb gorilla' in your space, one would wonder what you are doing there (unless you are truly providing a breakthrough).
    Our industry is very new (relatively speaking), and a recent Forrester report stated that somewhere between 2-5% of the market is even understanding/using the technology. While there are 1-2 vendors who lead at this point, there isn't anything close to an 800 lb. gorilla, or even 80. And that's an exciting time to be in that kind of a space.

  • Dan Drechsel

    I echo your comments that you find words matter a lot: Winston Churchill once said, "It has been my experinece that any mere recital of the facts, however accurate, is likely to be viewed by its audience with an equanimity bordering on indifference. Were it not for this I should have merely said, 'We owe a lot to the RAF.' Instead, he said, 'Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.'

  • Chart

    Since gorillas max out at 440 lbs., does this mean you want the company to grow up to be fiction?

    • Maybe we should call them “double gorillas”.  Wikipedia – the source of all truth in the universe – says that occasionally we’ll see 510lb ones in the wild and 600lb obese ones in captivity.  And then there is our friend Urban Dictionary –… />

      • Chart

        OK barkeep…make it a double.

  • Great insight into boardroom dynamics.
    Analogies can be useful for simplifying a complex issue, however, as you point out they can simplify something and give it an incorrect emphasis (like the 800lb gorilla). The danger of using analogies is that they are highly persuasive and people can fall into the "anchoring trap" – over relying on their first thought, more here:
    So important to have characters on a board that challenge and ensure a rigorous debate.

  • Kyle

    You know you're expert in a domain when making land grabs and planting flags the idiom space becomes a primary concern.

  • courtney benson

    Good food for thought and I will use this in the future.

  • Yes, you did well getting them to slow down, quit patting themselves on their backs, quit "smoking their own socks", and get back to work.

    The meetings I've been in have had work quality inversely proportional to the number of people talking. Bummer.

    So, with that history, I'm interested, no, concerned, that when I get a Board, how the heck to keep up the work quality?

    Or, maybe we're in the high end ice cream business charging forward well according to plan, and some Board member, who actually doesn't understand or like the high end ice cream business, is suddenly all hot on our also selling jelly beans, cookies, and popsicles for which we have had no thoughts or plans at all and have no expertise, time, or resources to pursue except of course he has a 'totally available' brother in law he claims is the world's best at GD-pop-f**king-sicle-sh*t.

    How to pour water on such sock smoking? Ideas?

  • If you want a proven system for going from 12lb to 800lb anything, read Michael Masterson's book "Ready, Aim, Fire." He will show you the way.

  • Nice analogue 🙂

    Of recent months I've been trying to catch myself when I'm thinking "this is the end"—or 800 pound Gorilla. Once I've caught myself I shift my thinking to "this is the beginning"—or the 12 pound Gorilla.

    One end is another beginning, we just need to remember it. In recent months that's been a great motivator upon myself.

  • Thanks, I think I can summarize my point where I see the market as a container which you can fill up to its capacity and maybe a little beyond regardless of you capability or uniqueness.

  • lisa

    these cookies are GOOD!!!!

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  • I guess the board meeting was the "powerpointless" one of Return Path.