Winning customers as an entrepreneur in a startup has many parallels to a young army trying to penetrate some formidable new and unfamiliar territory. You need a strategy as well as a goal, and you need to pick your battles well. Even in this age of purpose before profits, a business won’t survive by pretending there are no competitors out there to worry about.
I had certainly heard of the 2500-year-old, but still current, masterwork on military strategy by Sun Tzu, “The Art of War,” but never thought very relevant to business startups. But Becky Sheetz-Runkle, in her recent book for small businesses, “The Art of War for Small Business,” gave me a whole new perspective.
In the context of offering some inspiring examples of small business success, she includes some timeless business lessons that I believe every startup entrepreneur should take to heart and follow in practice. As examples, I offer my interpretation of some of the key lessons here:
- Scout the territory first and pick your battles. A smart general going into battle always does the research first on the lay of the land, including critical high points that have the most value, before charging into the fray. Too many startups rush into battle early, assuming any progress will somehow give them the competitive advantage.
- Prepare thoroughly and strike fast. Lining up your resources is critical, but so is time to market. Some entrepreneurs get bogged down in planning and never get to the point of action, often called analysis paralysis (i.e. ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim…). A good general makes sure his troops are trained and prepared, and are not hesitant to act.
- Capitalize on strengths and shore up weak points. A winning military leader always knows the weaknesses of his troops, as well as the strengths. Entrepreneurs likewise must be able to recognize and leverage the competencies of the current team, while providing the backup and direction to minimize weaknesses in selecting target markets.
- Attack competitor weaknesses and be alert for opportunities. Every competitor, like every army, has weak points, and every territory has ready opportunities. Entrepreneurs must seek these out, pivot as required, and lead the team into battle. Small wins and some penetration builds momentum and bolsters morale for that major assault.
- Limit your focus to key objectives on a single front. No startup or army can manage more than 3 to 5 goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. Pick the key challenges and attack them will all your resources, rather than stay spread so thin that every initiative is jeopardized. “Spray and pray” is not a winning strategy in any war.
- Capture territory the opposition does not yet own. In war, the smart general looks for territory that is undefended. Success there is assured, but the value of that position may also be low. In business, it’s always smart to look for new opportunities, or markets with few competitors, but beware of “solutions looking for a problem,” and lack of customers.
- Negotiate and leverage win-win alliances. Even in ancient times, creative diplomacy was a better solution than fighting to the death. Entrepreneurs need to learn that your toughest competitor may be your best strategic partner, leading to a win-win situation. This approach is called coopetition, and is too often overlooked as a key strategy.
- To win you have to take risks, but don’t be reckless. There is no safe position in business, or in war. In both cases, charging into battle with your eyes closed, is simply reckless, and will lead to destruction. Winning in either arena requires the skill and willingness to take smart risks, with trained resources, due diligence, and determination.
In fact, I now believe that all of Sun Tzu’s teachings are still relevant to entrepreneurs, who more than ever face fierce competition for customers, market share, and talent. Their very survival depends on strategy, positioning, planning, and leadership, just like it did for armies a thousand years ago.
With these lessons in hand, entrepreneurs today in startup companies can and do outsmart, outmaneuver, and overwhelm larger adversaries to capture market share, satisfy unmet needs, and emerge victorious in their chosen markets. That’s the challenge and the fun of being an entrepreneur. Believe me, it’s a lot more satisfying than the alternative.
CEO & Founder of Startup Professionals, Inc.; Advisory Board Member for multiple startups; ATIF Angels Selection Committee; Entrepreneur in Residence at ASU and Thunderbird School of Global Management.