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Tech Davids recount lessons from facing Goliaths

Last night I sat on a small business panel at the Gladstone Hotel with Wind Mobile chairman Anthony Lacavera, the Mill Street co-founder Steve Abrams and Loudon Owen of i4i (the tech firm involved in a $200-million patent lawsuit against Microsoft).

The topic: Davids vs. Goliaths - which is funny, since an artist used that same (age old) theme to illustrate a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about Videotron's battle against Bell.

It was amusing listening to all of their different takes on how to market, design products and otherwise prepare to go up against the big players in their respective industries.

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Abrams, from Mill Street, a Toronto-based craft brewer that incidentally happens to make my favourite local beer (Tankhouse), had three words for those thinking of girding themselves for warfare against multi-billion dollar giants: "Don't do it," he said, laughing.

He said that his Distillery District brewer flies under the radar of the huge beer corporations. In Toronto, you can see their umbrellas and actually get their beers on tap, but outside of Toronto "in concentric circles," Abrams said, they begin to truly fall off the map. (For those that didn't know, like me, Abrams is actually an American transplant from New York, who said he started Mill Street here because he craved, but couldn't find, great local craft brews like Sam Adams.)

Lacavera from Wind had a different take. He equated the Big Three wireless companies in Canada - Bell, Rogers and Telus - to "tankers in a harbour" and that even if they can't turn on a dime, he said, they still have a size advantage to someone "paddling around in a canoe."

"If you can see them turning, don't be there (when they get there), be somewhere else," he said.

Owen from i4i has gained the media spotlight by winning patent battle after patent battle on an obscure sourcecode that forms part of Microsoft Word. His advice for the crowd gathered on Queen Street West was this: Seek the best possible legal advice (and that doesn't necessarily mean over on Bay Street, but on Wall Street or London) to protect yourself. Because when it comes down to it, "you're allowed to make zero mistakes" as a David. And, more importantly for him, as a plaintiff, "you only need to win once."

One pervasive theme coming from the panel's entrepreneurs was carving out a still-lucrative niche in markets thoroughly dominated by big companies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that small niche is fluid, and can change as a company grows - it isn't a static market segment. Also, that niche has to be steered - as Lacavera points out - to make sure that you don't find yourself outsmarted by larger companies with more clout, technology and expertise.

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