Day 289: The Art of (Startup) War — Chapter 13: Intelligence and Espionage

Finally, the last chapter of The Art of War is perhaps the greatest challenge to startup ethics. Let’s dive right into the importance of spies in the art of war and startups (maybe)…

To start the chapter, Sun Tzu gets pretty intense about the costs of warfare, emphasizing the fiscal and spiritual drain that it has upon the state. Thus, the importance of acquiring foreknowledge enables the possibility of saving countless silver … and lives.

Sun Tzu said:

“…[I]t is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying and thereby they achieve great results.”

There are five types of spies, all part of an espionage system known as the “divine manipulation of the threads”:

  • Local spies — those operating in a nearby district
  • Inward spies — using officials within the enemy’s ranks
  • Converted spies — turning the enemy’s spies against their own army
  • Doomed spies — using people who expose our own deception (sacrificial)
  • Surviving spies — those who are able to bring back valuable information

Sun Tzu constantly emphasizes the importance of acquiring knowledge towards victory — he could even be loosely attributed to the old addage that “knowledge” is power.

But could Sun Tzu be crossing a line here?

How this applies to the startup world


The startup world can get ugly… and most of those stories are fun to share yet should serve as cautionary tales, not salacious stories for us to draw inspiration from.

I think we should seek to acquire knowledge whenever possible, but we should do it with the utmost care… for ourselves, our company … and our competitors.

Victory is a seductive goal, but the wiser entrepreneur knows that no startup lasts forever, much less longer than five years. Relationships matter, and memories don’t often fate when tinged with betrayal.

My advice to you is to handle such data with care. Disruption must be tempered with a restraint that acknowledges the best in all of us.

Stay innovative.

— Lee