Friday, November 02, 2007

Pick Your Battle(field)s

Entrepreneurial success is less about picking your battles than it is about picking your battlefields.

Amateurs focus on tactics--working around the clock, hard-selling, flooding the world with business cards. The truth is that most battles are won or lost before the opposing forces take the field.

During the Second Punic War, Hannibal beat the Roman army at Cannae by tricking the Romans into fighting on a battlefield of his choosing. By attacking one of their supply depots and then retreating, and in violation of every rule of warfare, establishing a position in front of a river, he goaded the Romans into attacking. The Romans saw a battlefield where they could finally corner the wily Hannibal and use the weight of superior numbers to defeat the Carthaginian genius.

The Romans, outnumbering Hannibal 3:1, attacked, trying to drive Hannibal's army into the river. Hannibal's center slowly gave ground, encouraging the Romans to press forward. At the crucial moment, Hannibal swung the left and right wings of his army inward, completely enveloping the Roman formation. He utterly annihilated a Roman army of 80,000 men.

By all rights, Hannibal should not have picked a battle against a vastly larger force. But by picking the right battlefield, he prevailed. This holds just as true in business as in war.

Google chose the battlefield of making search fast, easy, and better. This nullified the advantages of Lycos, Excite, Altavista, et al, who had many times the traffic and resources. Those "portals" could provide an endless array of services, ranging from news to Web-based email. But on the battlefield of plain old ordinary search, none of those services helped. In fact, they hindered their efforts to combat Google, whose simple, empty search page completely outclassed the cluttered homepages of its competitors.

The fact that Google's search results were better was certainly important, but had Google battled its entrenched competition head on, it would have lost. Google's genius lay in picking its battlefield.

Pick your battles, but more importantly, pick your battlefields.


Josh said...

This is a great post, Chris. I just got out of the marines and love to compare business with military tactics.

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Keep the military comparisons coming.

Tyler Willis said...

Great post Chris, reminds me of a recent Paul Graham quote "We in the technology world are used to that sort of solution: you don't beat the incumbents; you redefine the problem to make them irrelevant."

I've been thinking recently about how the internet generation can approaching politics with this exact mindset. Simply redefining the way ideas spread and are handled to increase the efficiency of governing.

Rob Long said...

Excellent post. Thanks! And I can't help thinking, as a Hollywood writer out on strike, that what you say applies to what we're striking for, and our timing. I've been trying to get my union to see that the days of old-style residuals are over. But, you know, people always want to fight the last war on the last battlefield.

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