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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Feel For The Game

In startups, just as in basketball, one of the most important qualities to look for in a teammate is "feel for the game."

I have the (mis)fortune of being a Los Angeles Lakers fan. But one of the joys of being a Lakers fan is getting the chance to watch Luke Walton play basketball. Luke has an incredible feel for the game. Basically, what this means is that he understands the rhythms of the action, and knows how to do the right things at the right time to help his team win, whether it's rewarding big men who run the break by getting them the ball, or knowing how to space the floor to give Kobe Bryant room to operate.

Because of his feel for the game, Walton is a key player for the Lakers, despite the handicaps of
being slow, (relatively) short, and unathletic.

Similarly, some people have a feel for the startup game. They know when to raise money, and when to bootstrap. They can sense the right time to launch a product--not so early as to make a bad impression, not so late as to be a me-too competitor.

Working with someone who has a feel for the game is a joy. Progress can seem effortless, and wins just keep piling up.

On the other hand, working with someone who lacks a feel for the game is frustrating and unproductive. You can't trust them to do the right thing on their own, and micromanaging them simply produces a time-consuming and unreliable robot.

Feel for the game may not be obvious from a resume--it's not about going to the right schools or working at the right companies, just as basketball isn't simply about obvious factors like height and athleticism. But once you've worked with someone, you'll never be in doubt.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Your Hard is Another's Easy

Entrepreneurs are often very independent. You generally don’t choose the risks and pains of starting a company unless you’re pretty dead set against having a boss tell you what to do. But don’t let this independence blind you to other perspectives.

I recently worked with a great team of young entrepreneurs. They had done a phenomenal job of building a product that their customers loved, but were having problems figuring out how to sell it to big companies.

Off the top of my head, I ticked off the usual things you need to make an enterprise sale: analyst coverage, trade press, white papers, case studies, etc. They were amazed, because trying to figure out this world had been so difficult for them.

The key to remember is that your hard is another’s easy. Maybe you’re great at programming, but you think “the revenue thing” is a dark and somewhat sinister mystery. To a business guy, it’s a simple matter of selling a product to the same customers that he’s sold to for decades.

That doesn’t mean that the business guy is any smarter or more capable, just that he has different skills and experiences. Remember, to a business guy, extreme programming is what you call it when coders drink Mountain Dew and code while skydiving.

The ideal path is neither the arrogance of believing that what you do is more important, or the cringing self-flagellation of always looking to others for approval. Focus on doing the things that others find hard, but you find easy, and find partners who can do the things that you find hard.