To Get Ahead, Grab Their Coattails

By on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Want to Pull Ahead of the Competition?” by Michael Wheeler (professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Lots of people have great ideas for new products and services, but most lack the imagination and doggedness to actually get them launched. Darren Rovell is a notable exception. As a college student, he had a passion for the business of sports—licensing deals, complex stadium financing, and hardball negotiations between free-agent players and teams.

Media coverage of this terrain had been haphazard. Rovell saw that omission as a great opportunity, but he had two problems. First, media giants such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN didn’t think the business beat would appeal to the average fan. And—oh, yes—Rovell was just a kid in his teens.

Nevertheless, he launched a business-of-sports talk show on Northwestern University’s student radio station, WNUR. His “producer” (actually, a roommate) aggressively pursued big-name players, general managers, and agents. Most declined, but a few said yes. Once Rovell recruited a celebrity, that person often would cheerfully give him another star’s direct line. Rovell quickly built an impressive Rolodex.

Tapes of the show enhanced his credibility as an interviewer and also demonstrated the power of his idea. But Rovell knew that TV and newspaper sports departments are flooded with resumes and demo tapes from thousands of wannabe reporters. To ensure that his material wouldn’t be lost in the shuffle, he mailed it in the largest box that the post office would deliver.

The gambit worked. Right after graduating in 2000, Rovell landed a job at ESPN.com as its first business-of-sports anchor. He’s now regularly featured on financial news network CNBC and writes prolifically for its online magazine.

On the surface, Rovell’s story illustrates the value of confidence and persistence. Dig a little deeper, and important negotiation lessons emerge.

First, you can succeed without explicitly swapping favors. After all, Rovell had nothing of substance to offer successful sports figures. But by being respectful, persistent, and doing his homework, he persuaded them to appear for free.

Second, Rovell was careful to build and test a prototype. His college radio show was small potatoes in terms of listeners, but he proved his ability to pull off the new concept. Finally, and perhaps most important, he rapidly built his own credibility by “coattailing” on the credibility of others. The athletes he attracted had never heard of him, but they knew the name of the All Star who had appeared on the show the prior week. As Rovell’s reputation grew, his past success became a resource. Today his calls get answered, and people phone him with stories.

What’s remarkable is that Rovell did all this without a patent or a copyright. In theory, anyone could try to horn in on his territory. Surely some are trying; there are no formal barriers to entry. Rovell’s competitive advantage is his reputation.

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