I heard an amazing story at my Church this weekend. I drew many parallels from it to my own life including some of the things I’ve learned in my journey as an entrepreneur. The story goes like this:
Alexander the Great’s powerful army spent years overwhelming opposing armies in their conquests. His men were fierce and swelled with the confidence that comes with consistent victory. Yet when Alexander and his men arrived on the shores of Persia they were visibly outnumbered. Clearly outmanned, his men pleaded that it would be wise to go back and get more men. Alexander responded by ordering the men to burn their boats. As their only means of retreat went up in flames, legend has it that Alexander turned to his men and said, “We go home in Persian ships, or we die.”
One of the key themes from this story I relate to entrepreneurship is the nature of options. The inherent ambiguity you face in an early stage company often causes you to think 2 steps ahead. What if it fails? What if people don’t like the product? Often times these lingering questions can compel us to find ways to hedge our bets…for better or worse.
What I love about this story is that Alexander the Great made one of the bravest decisions anyone can make by intentionally removing his options. His command sent a message to his men, but more importantly it put them in a new position: one defined by focus where there is no other option but to do your absolute best…or be defeated.
I’ve come to realize startup founders often find themselves similar circumstances. You’re a small company trying to disrupt a space typically occupied by larger incumbents. The odds are stacked against you and the uncertainty of success is evident.
I’d like to believe the odds of success for founders who disengage their options are far greater than those who don’t. Its extraordinary what you’re capable of when you put yourself in a corner. The straightforwardness of succeed or die propels you to do things you’d never do. Coupled with laser-like focus, this is a powerful combination. Compare this with someone who gets back in the boat when the going gets tough. I know who my money is on.
For the record, I understand the importance of remaining objective, failing fast, and having a backup plan. I think the best founders integrate these things with the all or nothing approach exemplified by this story.
Early on make the decision whether or not you’re going to burn your boats. If you do, successful or not, the simple fact that you gave it everything you had will bring you peace regardless of the outcome. I feel that founders who are truly passionate about solving the problem they have set out to tackle are the ones that will always be the first to burn their boats. This will be the subject of a future post.