Art of War and Food Startups

I read Art of War by Sun Tzu, with commentary by translator Lionel Giles. I sifted through the commentary, and I chose the passages that most applied to the idea of growing a small food business into a successful brand.

Running a start-up is a lot like war. There is the spiritual warfare of maintaining self-discipline, resolve, and optimism. There is a battle for the mouths of diners in your area, and for the eyes of viewers on the Internet. You must lead a team in unity. Most of the time, you are an underdog, competing against a larger, more well-known, better funded establishment.

You want your startup to grow, while protecting it from loss. You may feel the urge to grasp to what you have built, but you have to take calculated risks to get to where you want to go. You have to convince people that your brand is right for them right now, and not any of 10,000 other food choices they have at their fingertips.

From this reading, I’ve learned about the following important topics of growing a startup:

  • Planning for action
  • Entering battle
  • Leading people
  • Fighting as an underdog
  • Fighting without fear
  • General psychology

Planning for Action

  • 1.26 – Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.
  • 7.21 – Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.
  • 8.12 – Simply going to one’s death does not bring about victory.
  • 9.41 – He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.

Simply showing up with passion to win is not enough (8.12). You may have resolve, but your enemy does as well, or they would not appear as your obstacle (9.41).

Ponder and deliberate (7.21). A leader should take plenty of personal time to meditate on their strategy alone. Ponder the information available, and form a succinct picture of why your strategy will work. Then, deliberate with those who you trust dearly. Get an outside perspective to uncover your biases, to see what you may have overlooked.

Entering Battle

  • 10.19 – Whenever there is fighting to be done, the keenest spirits should be appointed to serve in the front ranks, both in order to strengthen the resolution of our own men and to demoralize the enemy.
  • 7.8 – Don’t march a hundred li to gain a tactical advantage. Clever maneuvers should be confined to short distances.
  • The hardships of forced marches are often more painful that the dangers of battle.
  • 12.17 – Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.
  • 12.19 – If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.
  • 11.19 – Rapidity is the essence of war; take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots.
  • 11.68 – At first, exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening; afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to oppose you.
  • 5.5 – In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.
  • In presence of the enemy, your troops should be arrayed in normal fashion, bur in order to secure victory abnormal maneuvers must be employed.
  • Steadily develop indirect tactics, either by pounding the enemy’s flanks or falling on his rear.

Entering battle for the start-up is presenting yourself to the customer. When doing so, make sure to highlight your best sales people and marketing materials (10.19), do not save them for later.

When choosing how to enter a market, do not stray too far from your expertise (7.8). Gauge the mental and physical strength of yourself and your team before making a complicated move. Furthermore, do not enter a market unless you see an advantage or there is something critical to be gained (12.17, 12.19). Don’t enter the fight unless you can win something or dominate.

When you are ready to enter a market, do so all at once. Do so unexpectedly (11.19). Communicate only with those who must be in the know. Do not allow larger players to guard against you until you have a footing (11.68).

Do not enter a market doing what everyone else is doing, especially the large incumbents (5.5). Find a niche. Serve someone whose needs aren’t being met. Make your expertise the incumbents’ weakness.

Leading People

  • 9.42-44 – If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, they will be practically useless. If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless. Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory. If in training soldiers commands are habitually enforced, the army will be well-disciplined; if not, its discipline will be bad.
  • The ideal commander unites culture with a warlike temper; the profession of arms requires a combination of hardness and tenderness.
  • The Prince – Is it better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? The answer is that it is desirable to be both, but because it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer for a price to be feared than loved, if he is to fall in one of the two.
  • 10.25 – Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.
  • 8.12.(5) – Relief came through the very man who started out with the distinct resolve no longer to subordinate the interests of the whole to sentiment in favor of a part.
  • 11.32 – The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.
  • 10.18 – The secret of getting successful work out of your trained men lies in one nutshell – in the clearness of the instructions they receive. The most fatal defect in a military leader is diffidence; the worst calamities that befall an army arise from hesitation.
  • 13.19 – Men should either be treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones, they cannot.

Dealing with your team as a leader is crucial and delicate. Start by showing your humanity and getting to know what drives each of them. When working, show discipline and hardness (9.42-44). Do not lose respect for your business for the sake of one of your team, they will see your determination and respond appropriately (8.12.(5)).

Management requires clear expectations, when hiring and choosing team members, and when giving orders. Understand what qualities you cannot work without (11.32). Ponder instructions before giving them so they are clear and concise (10.18). If someone breaks the rules, act quickly, whatever way you choose to teach (13.19).

Fighting as an Underdog

  • 3.17 – With a superior force, make for easy ground; with an inferior one, make for difficult ground.
  • 6.29-31 – Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.
  • Like water, taking the line of least resistance.
  • 11.4 – For those who have to fight in the ratio of one to ten, there is nothing better than a narrow pass.

Your team, capital, infrastructure will be smaller than the incumbents. First-movers avoid difficult ground because it may appear un-lucrative, especially in comparison to a larger market. Because of this, their organizational structure is designed incorrectly to deal with difficult markets. This is where mastery will provide your advantage (3.17, 6.29-31).

In food and other perishable goods, there is nothing more important than location. If you can find a location that gives you an immense advantage, seize it (11.4).

Fighting without Fear

  • 11.14 – If you fight with all your might, there is a chance of life; whereas death is certain if you cling to your corner.
  • 11.23 – Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength.
  • A desperado and a man who sets some value on his life do not meet on even terms.
  • 11.24 – Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. Without asking, you will get.
  • 11.58 – Place your army in deadly peril, and it will survive; plunge it into desperate straits, and it will come off in safety.
  • Danger has a bracing effect.
  • 2.3 – …the bravest achievements were always accomplished in the non-age of a nation…The more men have to lose, the less willing they are to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel. – Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)
  • 11.3 – When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.
  • 12.1 – Unless you enter the tiger’s lair, you cannot get hold of the tiger’s cubs.

The human spirit taps into its unconscious will to survive when placed against an unbeatable adversary. Put your team in situations where the only choice they have is to work off of their instincts. They will not lose (11.14, 11.23, 11.24, 11.58). This applies to the daily task of serving (food) and to short-, medium-, and long-term goal-setting.

Take into account the fact that incumbents have more, so they have more to lose. They will be more cautious. You must move quickly when there is a clear advantage while larger entities calculate (2.3).

At some point, you will come upon a critical point in growth. A new and expensive location, clear competition with a large player, etc. You must abandon previous, smaller strategies that were working in the past to focus your energy on the next stage of growth (11.3, 12.1). Enter the tiger’s lair with optimism and danger.

General Psychology

  • 4.11,12 – What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom not credit for courage.
  • He who only sees the obvious, wins his battles with difficulty; he who looks below the surface of things, wins with ease.
  • 7.27 – The spirit of the enemy’s soldiers will be keenest when they have newly arrived on the scene, and it is therefore our cue not to fight at once, but to wait until their ardor and enthusiasm have worn off, and then strike.
  • Attacking does not merely consist in assaulting walled cities or striking at an army in battle array; it must include the art of assailing the enemy’s mental equilibrium.
  • 8.3 – It is a great mistake to waste men in taking a town when the same expenditure of soldiers will gain a province.
  • 6.17 – If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.
  • Those generals who have had but little experience attempt to protect every point, while those who are better acquainted with their profession, having only the capital object in view, guard against a decisive blow, and acquiesce in smaller misfortunes to avoid greater.
  • 8.12.(4) – The seeker after glory should be careless of public opinion.
  • 10.24 – The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.
  • 6.28 – Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.
  • 11.29 – The skillful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan. Now the shuai-jan is a snake that is found in the Ch’ang mountains. Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.
  • 7.12 – We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors.

Studying human (and therefore business entity) psychology is going to be crucial to winning battles in business (4.11,12). Find out what motivates people, what they protect with their life, what they undervalue, the state of their leadership and employees (7.27), and the main reasons why people go to them, and use the information appropriately.

I read it somewhere else, if you’re going to undertake a business, do it big (8.3), because it will be the same amount of work either way.

Do what is best for the business (6.17). Appeasing the ego will harm the bottom line. Take wins and losses with equanimity (8.12.(4), 10.24).

Food is wavy, one day you’re in and the next day you’re out; and balanced cash flow is lovely. Sales tactics must remain fluid (11.29), multiple (6.28), and based on circumstance.

Assess the mental state of potential partners carefully before working together (7.12).

Published by Chester Chambers

MIT grad with a mission to make the best veggie burger in the world

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