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Vol. 2, No. 11
(626) 791-8973

Fly Under the Competition’s Radar with the Indirect Approach

adapted from: The Art of the Strategist: 10 Essential Principles for Leading Your Company to Victory © 2004 by William A. Cohen (New York: AMACOM, 2004)

The indirect approach is a great way to incorporate a very successful strategic principle into your strategy. Basically, the indirect approach means that instead of going directly for your goal and raising a great deal of resistance from your competitors who may try to stop you, you approach your objective indirectly.

There are a number of ways of doing this. One way is to “fly below your competitors radar screen.” That is, not to be noticed or for your actions to be perceived as unimportant until it is too late for the competition to do anything about it. Do this and competitors either completely misread what you are doing or see no threat in your actions. By the time competitors recognize what you’ve actually been up to, you’ve won the day.

Selling Ant Farms

My friend Joe Cossman was in the toy business in the early 1960’s. This was the era of Sputnik and the high technology spawned by the vision of space exploration. President Kennedy had announced the intention of the U.S. to put a man on the moon within ten years. Large toy companies sought to capitalize on this mood and eagerly competed in developing toy robots that walked under their own power, rockets that could actually be launched and would ascend several hundred feet into the air, and telescopes through which authentic celestial observations could be made.

These large companies had equally large research and development budgets and large sales forces. Joe never had more than 13 employees. How could he compete in the midst of this frenzy to mimic our explorations in space with limited resources against much larger competitors? The answer was not to compete directly. Instead Joe looked for old products that he might be able to make attractive with a new twist and a small investment.

After some weeks of investigation, he came up with a toy product that had been around for more than fifty years and was still selling on the toy market, albeit poorly, in 1961. This was the ant colony container for children. What someone had developed in the 1890’s was essentially a wooden box frame with glass windows in the front and back. The box was filled with soil. Kids would collect ants and put them in the box with food. If they caught the right kind of ants, the ants would eventually colonize the box. Because of the glass windows, all of their activities could be observed.

However, there were problems with this product. The glass windows made the product hazardous for children and unwieldy as a toy. The fit between the wood frame and the glass was imperfect, and frequently the ants escaped. Finally, because the ants had to be captured by the children themselves, it took a number of tries before the correct ants would be captured and the container colonized. Of course, stores were unwilling to sell live ants along with the container, so the toy was mainly sold in limited numbers to teachers who used them in the classroom for educational projects.

Joe had an idea how to solve all of these problems. The development of plastic, and specifically clear plastic meant that the container could be made very cheaply out of 100% plastic. Moreover, Joe had an idea how to handle the problem of the ants, too. Each container would be sold with a “stock certificate.” Buyers would mail this in to a central location that then would send the correct ants to stock the container with no guesswork. Joe called his product an “ant farm.”

Most of Joe’s competitors knew what he was doing. But they were focused on high technology space toys. Moreover, they looked at previous product sales and “knew” that this was a very limited market. Joe was flying below their radar screen.

Moreover few competitors appreciated Joe Cossman’s incredible ability not only to find new and unique methods of promotion, but to use every single one. For example, when his dog had nine puppies, Joe called the Los Angeles Times. “What’s special about your dog having puppies,” a reporter asked. “She has nine puppies, but only eight facets,” he answered. The reporter said he would bring a photographer over and do a human interest story. Cossman, the promoter, redecorated his dog’s basket . . . with strategically placed flyers illustrating the ant farm!

He announced to the world when the White House ordered an ant farm for Caroline Kennedy, the President’s daughter. Several weeks later he received a letter from the White House asking: ”Where’s the ant farm?” In all the excitement over getting the order, someone had forgotten to send it! He spread the story of his mistake as well, providing even more publicity.

Despite all the interest in space, the millions of dollars spent by toy companies in developing cutting edge toys, Cossman’s Ant Farm was the number one selling toy that year, and he sold almost a million of them. There were no patents on the product and other companies easily could have copied him. They knew what he was doing, but by then it was too late. Cossman was established and dominated this market. Ultimately millions of this product were sold and the product is still being sold forty years later by Cossman’s brother-in-law.

The Art of the Strategist

The Art of the Strategist


Its has been recommended by CEOs of companies, generals (including the former Chief of Staff of NATO and the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army), professors of strategy, ambassadors, and more. Here is a direct link to the publisher’s for more information about the book:


THE LESSON: A direct line is not always the shortest distance to success in strategy. Frequently the best means is the indirect approach, and one way of using the indirect approach is to fly below the radar screen of your competition.