The Art of War. (And Startups / Early Stage Businesses.)
This article was inspired by one of my great friends in life and business and I sharing a conversation about business, growth and strategies over beers at a barbecue. He was sharing advice he was getting from a business coach and I was grinning like an idiot, nodding, and starting to finish his sentences. This is a bad habit I have that tends to manifest over backyard beers on balmy Queensland summer afternoons, whilst talking with people I like and who are smarter than me about topics I love.
When he asked if I knew <insert person> and how I knew this stuff, I let on that he was actually sharing paraphrased two-thousand-plus-year-old advice from a famous Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu. I then asked if he had ever read a wee tome called “The Art of War”?
So I promised I'd share some of my favourite Sun Tzu bits, as related to strategy, business and early stage / growing businesses. Better late than never A!
Sun Tzu is ascribed with authoring one of the best treatises on military tactics, a philosophy of war, winning, and strategy called “The Art of War”. I’ll leave to those who know what they are talking about to argue the details of his life - for me it’s the about the content.
Here are a couple of pieces that always resonate whenever I read it that I believe can apply particularly to early and growth stage businesses:
“If you know yourself and understand your opponent, your victory in any conflict would never be in jeopardy. If you know yourself but not your opponent, your odds are even. Knowing neither oneself nor the opponent, one will be in constant danger of losing every battle.”
I relate this back to the type of questions nearly every investor or advisor will try and get answers to from every early or growth stage company or Founders who are asking for help / advisory / investment etc.
Who is your competition?How will you beat them?How well do you know them?What is YOUR unique position that will see you successful?Are they up to the fight? Are YOU?Why is the market ready for you where others have tried?Do you understand what you’re doing here?
I think it's important to understand that it’s not necessarily being the first in to market that assures success: Google was like the 10th or 11th search engine; Apple was not the first computer; Facebook was very late to the social network scene (think: Friendster, Myspace etc) but it could be said that they knew where they had advantages and knew where their competitors would be weak. They won.
“During the assessment and planning phase at the ancestral temple, if the tally of the overall score is in your favour, winning is virtually assured. If the comparison is adverse, you will lose. Favourable scores will bring about victory and unfavourable scores will result in defeat. Disaster will befall those who do not bother to assess the situation!”
Basically, from two thousand years ago, the guy is saying ‘do the work; do your numbers; know your numbers; do your planning; know your market; plan’.
Sit in your temple / incubator / garage and plan the sh*t out of things BEFORE you start spending or developing or iterating or pitching investors your idea or hitting the pavement. Do the work and be honest with yourself.
“Managing a large group is no different to managing a small one if (the) organisation is sound: fighting with a large army is no different fighting with a small one as long as the chain of command is effective.”
Manage your stuff well.
Two pizza team sizing theory and all that aside.
“Invincibility is established because you are proficient at defence; victory is possible because you are proficient at attacking… the able commander of antiquity won the war with ease… his victory was unerringly assured… this means the measures he had taken would definitely result in victory because he prevailed over an enemy who had already lost… the victor creates the conditions for victory before he enters the fray; the vanquished fights first then tries to work out how to win the battle.”
See above points: plan, communicate, lead, do the work. Go hard with the preparation on a validated great idea. Then go out and win. But try to have a moat: build a business that has a difficult if not impossible advantage that is extremely difficult to crack once you’re in market. You could be on to a winner in that case.
And finally, one of my favourite ideas is often referenced as Sun Tzu but is NOT EVEN IN THE BOOK! Thank you, Hollywood / fortune cookies. What it does as a ‘quote’ is encapsulate / paraphrase what Sun Tzu says in his chapters on strategy, preparation and execution, and I like it so thought I'd include it.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”
Quote from some guy, possibly not Sun Tzu
Strategy and planning are important, but so too is execution. Traction is EVERYTHING when you are starting and growing. A lack of strategy and planning will make you feel very busy and very tired and very like you are gaining traction but, bluntly, you’re probably not. You’re just being busy. And that's not good. Why?
You’re not directing energy and resources effectively as you’re addressing what's popping up in front of you, right now. Whack a mole type stuff. That’s often stuff that isn’t that important, and almost certainly won’t chip away at achieving your big goals.
A year or two of that will see your investors and team looking at you with increasingly odd looks. It will not feel great. There are few guarantees in life, but I am almost certain you will be very tired, very down, and not be having much fun at that point.
So – go have a read of a two-plus-thousand-year-old Chinese book on strategy and learn some cool stuff for business and life in general. It really is a remarkable book.
Oh and avoid Google and 'motivational sites' for actual Sun Tzu 'quotes' - most of it looks like one liner paraphrasing or is just plain not right. You'll look a goose at certain dinner parties if you trundle off and quote Sun Tzu when you're actually quoting Themistocles or Pliny the Elder or, god forbid, Tony Robbins.
See you on the swings!
For the history nerds amongst us, Sun Tzu / Sun Zi was also known as Master Sun, lived in China around 550 BC. He came from nobility and was well versed in military tactics. His writings entitled “The Art of War” impressed the then King, He Lu, such that he was appointed a general. Under his command the state of Wu defeated the Western state of Chu and captured the capital, Yingdu. Wintastic! Interestingly, archaeologists in the early 1970’s excavating at Yinqueshan uncovered TWO hand written bamboo copies of “The Art of War”, one set of writings by Sun Tzu from the Spring and Autumn period (772-476 BC) , and another later version authored by a man named Sun Bin from the period of the Warring States (475-221 BC). This find confirmed the existence of both men, and it has since been suggested that Sun Bin might have been a descendent of Sun Tzu. I am not a historian, but love old writings and philosophy. If any of this is incorrect, please do let me know!
Special thank you to Dr Han Hiong Tan whose (paper) version of translations I enjoy reading, and contribute greatly to my intelligent looking bookshelf.