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Photo: Federico Novaro

One of the oft-repeated stories my father used to tell me was the time he met Johnny Weissmuller. Weissmuller was the Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz of his generation, garnering five Olympic gold medals, 52 U.S. championships and breaking 67 world records in swimming. He never lost a race, and retired with an unbeaten amateur record. In 1950, he was selected by the Associated Press as the greatest swimmer in the first half of the 20th century.

Remarkably, swimming is not why Johnny is so well remembered and recognized in my father’s generation. You see, Johnny was Tarzan, at least in the movies. He wasn’t the first actor to don the leopard loincloth, but Johnny was the best—the iconic Tarzan, jungle yodel and all.

From 1932 to 1948, he starred in a series of semi-memorable movies including Tarzan the Ape Man, Tarzan and His Mate, Tarzan Finds a Son! and Tarzan and the Mermaids. In addition to swinging through the trees and being able to summon the animals, Tarzan was portrayed as remarkably tough and strong. He would wrestle alligators and emerge victorious fighting other men, often outnumbered 10 to one. He was certainly one of the first Hollywood action heroes.

As my father would tell it, he was introduced to Johnny at a party in Miami and after some small talk, my dad challenged him to arm-wrestle. By way of background, my dad wasn’t all that big or strong, but he had developed an unusual winning arm wrestling technique while in the Marine Corps. He would regularly win tournaments (and money) against men twice his size. It was kind of his “thing”, so to speak, so it didn’t seem that odd that he’d want to have a shot for the bragging rights of besting “Tarzan” in some feat of strength—one that he was naturally advantaged in, of course. Now the interesting part was Johnny’s answer. He’d supposedly replied: “I’ll tell you what, I’ll do anything you want to do as long as we are in 10 feet of water.”

Ironically, I believe Johnny’s quick answer had a bigger impact on my dad than if he’d actually taken him down. My father would constantly remind me: What thing are you (or your company) best in world at? What makes you special? If you are competing against someone else, how do you lure them into competing against your strengths where you are sure to win?

When I was at Hotmail, we constantly debated about going after Exchange and the corporate market. Luckily, our growth on the consumer side was so overwhelming that we couldn’t pursue it because we would have gotten killed! The corporate requirements of security and IT control knobs didn’t match our expertise in scale, speed, and a consumer user interface.

At IronPort, we knew our competitive advantage was scalability vs our primary competitor, Ciphertrust, so we went after all of their largest customers who were experiencing mail delays. We were ruthless in overnighting evaluation units to relieve their pain and prove our speed.

This is an important lesson for startups who often over-prioritize competitive checklist features or listen too intently with customer feature requests. The winning products almost always have something unique about them that’s hard to replicate. The more a company doubles down on the things that make them special, the easier it is to pull away from the pack. Whether that’s in a crowded tech sector, or 10 feet of water.