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How do you win from behind?

how to win from behind

The Sports Newspaper

Pierre Giffard started a sports newspaper in France in 1892 – called Le-Velo (which literally translates to “The Bike.”) It was a very innovative newspaper mixing sports with political commentary.

Giffard had a simple principle: elevate sports in France, and his newspaper will grow. And so, he helped organize the first marathon race in Paris. And he helped start Bordeaux-to-Paris and Paris-to-Roubaix day long cycle races. And he helped found the Automobile Club de France!

Le-Velo grew year after year.

The political disagreement.

But in 1899, Giffard had a tussle over politics. Alfred Dreyfus – a Jewish army officer was convicted of spying. But there was some proof showing that there was a coverup and Dreyfus was framed. France was divided on the issue where half the France believed Dreyfus a traitor, and the other half believed him to be a victim.

Giffard argued with his leading advertisers on the issue including with industrialists like Comte de Dion and Edouard Michelin! Giffard believed Dreyfus to be innocent while his advertisers believed him a traitor. The acrid disagreement led to a lot of advertisers pulling their ads away from Le-Velo.

But that wasn’t all. Comte de Dion went a step further and hired Henry Degrange to start a competing newspaper called L’Auto-Velo!

The entrenched Le-Velo vs the underdog L'Auto-Velo

For three years, L’Auto-Velo tried to compete with Le-Velo. And managed to raise their circulation numbers to 25,000 readers to Le-Velo’s 80,000!

But then, in 1903, they lost a case of plagiarism against Le-Velo, and would have to drop “Velo” from their name. They would just be L’Auto.

Public sentiment was turning against L’Auto too and circulation numbers were falling week after week!


Degrange didn’t want to see his past three years effort go to waste. So he called a crisis meeting. And asked for ideas on how to save his newspaper.

The crazy idea

And sports correspondent Geo Lefevre came up with the winning idea: why don’t we follow Giffard’s principles that work so well – but do it 10 times better?

L’Auto announced the toughest cycling race ever: 3 week cycling race called the Tour de France!

Not everyone at L’Auto were sold on the idea however. They argued why go with a 3 week race? Why not go with a 2 day weekend race? But Lefevre argued that incremental improvement wouldn’t work.And he got the financial director of the paper to back him!

He even got them to offer a price of 12,000 francs to the winner of the race – when the average salary was less than 2,000 francs a year! 

This was a big gamble. But it worked. Because it enabled the first ever Tour de France to attract over 60 racers!

But more importantly, it grabbed the attention of the entire nation! By the end of the race, L’Auto’s circulation numbers had doubled!

Within five years, the number of subscribers jumped to 250,000 readers! And L’Auto managed to make Le-Velo go out of business!

Like a classic underdog racer, L’Auto won from behind – because they bet big.

Incremental improvements don’t move the needle

We live in a noisy world. Small improvements don’t get people to change their behaviour. You have to make big bets and chase huge ideas.

As the founder of Brian Chesky says, the wrong question to ask is: how do I improve my product. The right question to ask is: what would it take to design something that would get your clients to tell about you to literally every person they meet?

Incremental improvements don’t move the needle

  • Elevate your industry and you will automatically grow.
  • Think big. Think 10x. Incremental improvements don’t have the bang in them and lack the capacity to win people’s attention!

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