The Art of (Startup) War, Pt. 1

Want to manage a startup to success? All you need is Sun Tzu’s, “The Art of War.”

If you are one of those people who find themselves drawn to traditional literature, you may have found yourself reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” This book has held strong for thousands of years, and been translated numerous times, by numerous people. I recently read the version translated by Lionel Giles in 1910, and republished by Barnes & Noble Classics in 2003.

This classic, however, might be said to be irrelevant to those that don’t find themselves heading a thousand-man army. In fact, many of the people that I know have read the book, have read it just for leisure. In reading this amazing work, though, I have found this to be untrue.

As someone who is very interested in startup businesses and entrepreneurship, I have found a wealth of advice within this book that I believe applies directly to launching and running a startup in a competitive environment. From leadership, to strategy, to bolstering team energy, Sun Tzu has offered up a literary masterpiece that applies to numerous situations in our modern world, and that aligns with much of the advice that I have heard from my own professors and advisors.

Below are the most relevant pieces of advice, in my opinion, that Sun Tzu gives on war, applied to present-day startup culture. I have split the 12 sections in to four different blog posts, this being the first, covering sections 1–3. The book quotes are numbered and in bold, anything in regular text is my own text application.

If you are interested in startups and business strategy, hope you find this useful, or at the very least, an interesting consideration.


Section 1: Laying Plans

  1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the state.

I, personally, equate “going to war” as a startup, as entering, or attempting to enter, an already crowded or competitive industry environment. Obviously, disrupting any industry means that there are numerous people fighting to keep the status quo: making it necessary that you know how to compete strategically with less resources.

18. All warfare is based on deception.

19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when we are near, we must make him believe we are near.

A friend of mine once told me while I was explaining to him my new startup project, “When you are taking food off of peoples’ plates, they are going to fight you. You need to fly under the radar until you’ve established yourself enough that when you decide to cough, everyone gets sick.” This is what I would call developing a well-thought-out strategy for business secrecy.

20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

22. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

When you are in a place to take shots at an industry, do so in an effort to damage public image. Key words here, “when you are in a place.” Do what Trevor Noah does to President Donald Trump. Throw tasteful and fact based insults around, and wait for your competitors to show their ugly face. Industry holds may be tight, but public image and resulting public opinion is still very relevant.

24. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

Show up unexpectedly at that trade show/conference/event and shut shit down, once you are certain that your product offering and following is ready to handle push-back.


Section 2: Waging War

3. The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power within the trembling duplicity of a spaniel. — Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

Numerous applications here: (1) The more your investors throw in, the more they will want to be in charge of what does on within your startup. Don’t take investment if you aren’t prepared to give up a piece of your vision to others. (2) Big companies and top company executives can sometimes be hesitant to change, for fear that the chances they take won’t work out, resulting in public shame — Good for your startup. (3) Fear of losing, time, money, or reputation will hold a lot of people back from a lot of things. Just a good thing to keep in mind.

5. Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been associated with long delays.

I was told by one of my professors once, “You need to structure your business not like a ship, but like a speedboat.” What he meant is that successful businesses are able to maneuver quickly and respond with celerity to changes in the market. Doing anything slowly in the startup environment means that you will probably be overtaken by someone else trying to accomplish the exact same thing.

6. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

“We hear war called murder. It is not: it is suicide.” — British Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald

Again, do what you are going to do and do it quickly, with intention.

8. “I don’t want to get any messages saying, “I am holding my position.” We are not holding a goddamned thing. Let the Germans do that. We are advancing constantly, and we are not interested in holding onto anything except the enemies’ balls… Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy. We are going to go through him like crap through a goose.” — Gen, George S. Patton, speech to the Third Army on the eve of the Allied invasion of France (1994)

I really just like this quote because it demonstrates the mindset you need to have to succeed as an entrepreneur. You need to persevere, relentlessly.

16. Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their rewards.

This I take to mean that you should continue to keep in the minds of your team the ultimate goal behind building the business. Are you doing it for ultimate exit and IPO? Acquisition? To build and run a multi-billion dollar business? Make sure that the team knows; the clearer the motivation goal is, the harder they will drive themselves.


Section 3: Attack By Stratagem

The general himself ought to be such a one as can at the same time see both forward and backward. — Plutarch, Moralia (A.D. 75)

12. There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army.:

13. (1) By commanding the army to advance or retreat, being ignorant of the fact it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.

If your team is not prepared or equipped to do what you are tasking them to, you will cripple any productivity that could have taken place. Make sure that people are able to accomplish a task before you assign it.

“A kingdom should not be governed from without and an army should not be directed from within.” Of course it is true that, during an engagement, or when in close touch with the enemy, the general should not be in the thick of his own troops, but a little distance apart. Otherwise, he will be liable to misjudge the position as a whole, and give wrong orders.

14. (2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army.

As Steve Blank alludes to in his “How to Build a Startup” course on udacity.com, a startup is NOT a big business, and should not be run, nor built, like one. Be aware of this and find staff that is able to adapt themselves to a startup environment. Be careful of this especially when hiring on people coming down from big businesses.

15. (3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances.

Certain team members will be better for certain situations. Know who you’re working with and be aware of their most effective role at any given time within your company.

17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:

(1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

With limited resources, you have to pick your battles. Know when your resources tell you not to act on something. If money is starting to get tight, maybe you don’t buy that extra pong table, this month.

(2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

Disrupting big industry businesses is one thing, competing with other startups within the industry is another. Tailor your approach to both.

(3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

Get your team back on the same page, regularly. Strive to have one spirit and one goal, throughout.

(4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

(5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

Push for freedom from the board or major shareholders to make strategy choices. Reference the story of Apple. If you solidify your vision and you believe, in your whole being, that it will work, fight for it.


I hope you enjoyed! Check back for Part 2!