Tony Little: Staying ahead of the pack

Tony Little, Founder, President and CEO, Health International Corp.

Branch Rickey, the Hall of Fame big league baseball executive of the 1940s and ’50s, famously coined the expression, “Luck is the residue of design.” This grand concept of cause and effect, which essentially says that good things don’t usually happen by themselves, stands as the cornerstone for anyone looking to build a successful business.

While it is possible to stumble into early success, if you’re in it for the long haul, you need to gain a thorough understanding of what it is you’re selling and how it relates to the needs of your potential customers before you act on it. It’s one thing to have a good idea and to make a few dollars at it, and quite another to duplicate that success on a larger scale or to sustain it for an extended period of time.

Get in the mainstream

Many years ago, I was brought in to be the public face of a protein bar that was successfully sold in health food stores and gyms, targeting body builders and active males. As popular as the bar was, it occupied a narrow niche, with limited potential for growth outside of its very specific market.

The company behind the protein bar wanted to get into the mainstream retail arena — big box stores and supermarket chains — but didn’t know how to do it. So I had a meeting with one of their executives in which he asked for my advice. He placed one of the jumbo-sized bars in front of me, and after thinking about it for a moment, I took out my pocket knife, cut the bar in two and slid it back toward him. He gave me a puzzled look.

“The original bar is designed for body builders — you need a smaller bar for everyday consumers,” I said. “You also need to make it fit a lower retail price point for the mass market. Oh, and put my picture on it, too.”

I went on to tell him that there were countless other protein bars out there, but if the average consumer sees my picture on the wrapper, they’d be far more likely to at least take a look at it because they recognize me.

The suggestions were simple but game-changing. The company implemented these changes, and in short order, we got the product into all the places we wanted, becoming the No. 1 protein bar in the U.S. Understanding the difference between what body builders and mainstream consumers wanted, while also taking steps to make our product stand out from the crowd, was critical to our success as we expanded.

Stay fresh and topical

It is also important for your business to stay fresh and relevant over time. Every day we hear about another well-known company filing for bankruptcy protection or folding altogether. The poor economy is partly to blame, of course, but if you look closer, it’s interesting to note how many businesses have struggled or failed to adapt to the changing marketplace.

Whether it’s a department store, a snack-food company or a company that specializes in photography, part of planning for continued success is being willing to do things differently than in the past. Simply saying, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” is a surefire path to disaster.

Because I’m pretty well-known, it surprises some people when I tell them that, by definition, I am still a small business owner. That is, I own my company, and I operate it independently. I partner with many large corporations, and together, we’ve enjoyed a number of great successes over the years.

Stay ahead of the pack

But I’m still always concerned about maintaining or improving my position in the market. For that reason, I take it seriously when I notice that someone I’ve worked with is not staying ahead of the curve. I may notice that I’m not seeing new products from them, not getting any new proposals or hearing about them moving ahead in innovation.

So as much as I may have enjoyed working with them in the past, I know that I need to take charge and develop products on my own or find other companies that are just as concerned as I am about staying relevant.

Staying ahead of the pack means meeting your customers’ demands by keeping up with innovative technologies, diversifying and introducing new products. And if you’re proactive and smart with your business, you just might wind up with a reputation as one of the luckiest people around. But, of course, you’ll know better.

Tony Little is the president, CEO and founder of Health International Corp. Known as “America’s personal trainer,” he has been a television icon for more than 20 years. After overcoming a near-fatal car accident that nearly took his life, Tony learned how to turn adversity into victory. Known for his wild enthusiasm, Tony is responsible for revolutionizing direct response marketing and television home shopping. Today his company has sold more than $3 billion dollars in products. Reach him at [email protected]