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Founders: Burn Your Boats (venturebent.com)
57 points by scottbrit on Aug 2, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments



Well first the story about Alexander the Great is incomplete. When Alexander the Great faced the Persians they had the most formidable Navy in the world. So when his men wanted to retreat to get reinforcements Alexander the Great realized they wouldn't make it by sea. THAT is why he ordered the boats be burned. Because his men were so afraid he thought they'd use the boats to make a run for it even without his permission.

That is also why I think the author's logic falls short here. It may be brave to say "victory or death" but it is also kind of stupid. Especially if there's a chance you could be defeated but escape to fight another day.

Conflict is about strategy whether it be in business or war. Winning means using every resource you have available to you in the most efficient way possible. So I don't see the logic in destroying resources as motivational tools.


Even though most of the times its good to have resources to your disposal, but few other times it does make sense to burn your boat.

From my personal experience - I was running a services company which was very profitable and doing good. I tried building 2 different products in parallel but got no where. As there always was money coming in and I was moving far deep into a comfort zone to motivate me. Finally I decide to shut down services business to focus on latest product. Even though its still early, I have at least been able to get product in front few hundred users.

I think thats why having too long runway (excessive funding) has its own downside.


Try reading Schelling's Strategy of Conflict to see examples of limiting yourself to win. Or if you don't have time, you can read this (which I was directly reminded of) quick synopsis: http://lesswrong.com/lw/14a/thomas_schellings_strategy_of_co...


How do you know that about Alexander? Googling finds me no source.


How do you know that about Alexander? Googling finds me no source.

I want to archive this comment as evidence that in the year 2011 Google and Wikipedia still were not as good as books and libraries.


Come again? First, Google and Wikipedia are better than no source at all, which is what we have so far. Second, my googling includes Google Book Search, which is far more efficient for this type of random query than anything I ever did in libraries. Third, it sounds like you're assuming the story about Alexander is true, where "true" here can be taken to mean "comes from the traditional stories about Alexander". I'm suggesting that it doesn't. For one thing, Plutarch's life of Alexander doesn't mention the story. Plutarch would be the last person to leave out a good one like that.

I'm happy to be wrong, but showing that requires a source. As far as I can tell, the story was originally about Tariq ibn Ziyad (see my other comment in this thread) and subsequently hopped to Caesar, Alexander, and Cortes, probably because they were better known.


On second thought, you are right. I was thinking of Alexander having to build boats in India.

On the other hand, Google book search has never worked for me. But I do think Google is waaaay better then nothing. Howewver, I am not certain that Wikipedia, as it stands, is actually a net gain.


Okay, please cite the dead tree written by a credible historian. Near as I can tell, there are tons of claims about famous conquerors who burned their ships (Caesar, Alexander, Cortez), but the only reputable source I know about is the Iliad. Which was a very lovely piece of fiction, but nevertheless fiction.


I believe it was the Trojans who burned the Greeks' ships in the Iliad.


Who burns their own ships in the Iliad?


Taking your best shot has more to do with determination than with getting yourself into a situation where failure is not an option.

If we're talking generals of old: Sun Tzu kept on stressing that one should not fight a battle that has not been won in advance. That when outcome is uncertain it is better to live and to fight another day. Patience and resilience are even greater virtues than boldness.

That is a lesson that for example Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler failed to learn.

But it is indeed hard to be wise, patient and resilient when you are an narcissist on a rampage. If you learn from figures of old, please don't take them out of context and bet your life to heavily on their philosophies. Because it may cost you dearly.

Edit: Thus if you really want to do good. Prepare. Prepare obsessively and when time comes execute with determination. This ability is one virtue that all the truly great people I know of posses.


I think you're misunderstanding Sun Tzu's "a battle should not be fought unless it's already won". He's not saying you shouldn't go into battle if you're not certain of the outcome - he's saying you should secure the victory before you engage the enemy directly. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.


To be exact Sun Tzu's point is that every battle is decided in advance. Because the more prepared side always wins, where "prepared" is broadest possible term and includes all five elements: Mission, Climate, Ground, Leadership and Methods. The lesson is that one should not rush into battle if circumstances are not favorable.

Thank you for clarification - this is exactly what I meant, but English is not my primary language and thus my point didn't come across the way I wanted. And I indeed meant it to come across the way you put it.


> the more prepared side always wins

I'd say it's more subtle than that: the side which is more appropriately prepared always wins. Arguably the French were "more prepared" for WWII if you go by amount of effort expended - building the Maginot line wasn't cheap - but it didn't do them much good.


They were more prepared only in context of Von Clausevitz's delusional view of military strategy. Bureaucracies that were European armies of that time had completely lost all touch with warfare and its tenets. Napoleon was one of the last great European Military commanders. Nowadays mobility is again rightfully viewed as most important property of an fighting force.

Preparation is not about spending the most money - its like saying that 00's startups were way more prepared than nowaday's companies. No they only foolishly blew more resources.

A great general (or businessman for that matter) needs to have a knowledge of art, history, psychology, rhetorics, economics, philosophy and lastly military strategy (and also needs to be physically fit). That is what Sun Tzu really teaches. Being well rounded in all life's aspects gives one sufficient power to rise to any challenge.

Not some brutish spending of money and lives. Be it war or business.

As Sun Tzu said: It is best to win without fighting. And if we return to the French - they could have won WW2 without fight - if their deluded politicians wouldn't load Germans with unfulfillable liabilities.


Slightly off-topic: I've been reading Clasewitz's "On War" recently, so I'd appreciate it if you could say a little more about what's delusional about it.


I haven't read his work yet. So my argument does not apply directly to his work. Thus my statement is misleading in this direct sense.

What I have read of his work does make much sense - but is dangerous when taken out of context of his vast military experience - which is exactly what happened - what we have seen in western Europe from mid 19th century and culminating in WWI was predominantly fueled by Von Clausevitz's work. His delusion was trying to present his subjective life's experience in a scientific and absolute manner. And what happened was that people took his work and applied it literally.


Preparation is also a good way to waste your time procrastinating when you really need to be bold and charge into battle as an entrepreneur.

"Well, gee. If I stay at my day job another 6 months, think of all the extra runway my startup will have!"

"We can't release now! Feature X isn't even ready yet!"

I would say preparedness and entrepreneurship aren't automatically great advice.

When it comes to actual war (and other direct competitions, such as a negotiation), though, the advice is spot on. Preparation is how the US got Bin Laden from an (arguably) foreign nation without a single casualty, even after losing a helicopter in the process.


It took Steve Jobs twenty years to prepare sufficiently.

And procrastination is by no means preparation. However delaying your startup for six years might be a smart move if you have a strategic plan on how to improve your odds.

>"We can't release now! Feature X isn't even ready yet!": If the feature is core aspect of a product then by no means you should launch today. But if it is not a core or important feature then why did you even bother with its design and implementation.

These are by no means easy questions. And there are no easy answers. Thats why it is always wise to be realistic about ones goals and prepare. Doing your first startup might also just be a preparation and if it fails you should not back off - but realize that you failed since you were insufficiently prepared.

Dietrich Mateschitz was 40 years old when he founded Red Bull - and his life was (unknowingly) one big preparation for the Big One.


If I could star this post, I would. Wise perspective and good reminder to be patient and strategic.


A counter example:

When the USSR was invaded in world war II, Stalin implemented the "not one step back" policy. Officers and NKVD agents were under orders to shoot anyone who so much as took "one step back" in the face of the german onslaught. Officers would be shot if they ordered a retreat. He did it so that Russians would fight bravely and to the death, and many did. But it also meant that Stalin's generals were not allowed to maneuver away from the Germans, and so the German army could move past them and cut off their lines of supply. The order was rescinded because it hampered the Russians more than it helped them.

But I am dubious of any comparison between business and war. War analogies seem to bring out the least productive alpha traits in people (Balmer wanting to crush Apple springs to mind). There are some parallels, to be sure, but they are pretty damn different, too. Confuse the two at your peril.


Alexander the Great won Persia, but only after 10 years of dire struggle. His was unable to reproduce this success in India.

The meta lesson is that anecdotes are not wisdom. Smaller armies sometimes defeat bigger armies, but they mostly don't. Over enough trials, there will be some stories of success in the face of failure, some interesting enough to become legends. You should make decisions against the aggregate data, not selectively interesting data points.

Alexander is an epic exception, hence "the Great". Even though he succeeded, that doesn't mean it was wise of him to risk death and possible subsequent collapse of his civilization.


Alexander didn't burn his boats. That was Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim general who conquered Spain (well, Gibraltar - which is named after him) in 711. http://books.google.com/books?id=L-6ghsWDMTAC&pg=PA85

According to Plutarch, Alexander did burn some wagons, but that was because he wanted to make his army lighter so it could move faster.


Is anyone else tired of the contrived, amped-up metaphors we use to discuss startup life?

Dying in battle != having a failed startup venture

I don't get what we gain by pretending that the joy and opportunities of startup life is somehow analogous to fighting for our very lives.

What's our downside, really? That we're embarrassed when we fail? Or that we forgo a few years of big-company paychecks?

That's materially different than Alexander's army's downside - suffering and then death.


Even though you are tired of it, here is another one.

The root cause of Alexanders invasion as of Herodotus was the march of the 10000. The Persian army could not stop this ragtag band of Greek mercenaries in all those months and so they had obviously grown weak.

So if you see a big market were at least one new entrant survived, you should raise more capital than they did and conquer the peacock throne of your market.


I can't tell if you're joking or not... so I'll just reiterate my main point: men fighting to prevent the suffering and death of their families is not even remotely the same category of thing as startups (and business in general).

We can read in lots of fancy analogies, but unless we recognize that war (with the possibility of real, major loss) is played at completely different stakes (and therefore different strategy), it seems like a silly exercise. My $0.02!


Ugh, another article offering a platitude.

No, removing your options is never good. No amount of anecdotes can change that. You will probably come to a point where you'll wish you had the option, because everything's crashing down.

Removing other people's options, like in the anecdote, might be good for you, though.

Am I the only one who's tired of these empty articles all the time? "I take cold showers to prove myself", "I burn my boats to make sure I can't leave", etc. I don't think they serve any purpose.


For anyone wishing to repeat this anecdote without being made fun of by your friends, Alexander the Great did not burn his ships upon arriving in Persia, because, you know, there is not much of a sea between the Middle East and Persia.

It was Hernán Cortés who burnt his ships off the coast of Mexico in 1519 to eliminate any ideas of retreat.


Let me see... Consider the situation were you see your opponent burn their boat. Given that you read the art of war, you remember never to corner your opponent, but always to provide him a way of escape. So, you send your messenger to their camp and say you will not harm anyone who surrenders. Additionally, you make a public scene of the men who surrender eating happy, you get the point.

What has happened is your opponent has now created a room for your escape, now what?

It is similar with entrepreneurial ventures. But instead of your enemies creating an escape, your family and friends will provide one. Your parents will offer to pay grad school for you; your friends will hook you up with a new highly paying job. Your resolve will be broken.


This theme appears on VC blogs over and over: Don't hedge your bets; swing for the fences.

Small successes don't help VC funds, so VCs will present it as universally good advice. In reality, it's good advice for some entrepreneurs and bad advice for others. You have to examine your own situation and make your own choice.


I thought it was Cortes who ordered his boats burned once he landed in the New World.

Source: http://burningboats.com/about-burningboatscom/


Uh, your source also claims that Alexander burned his boats as well.


Depends on how many times you've watched The Hunt for Red October.


This is a tactic that works to give large organizations a sharp focus... I fail to see the analogy or usefulness for startups.


I think the analogy has some merit when relating it to startups. For example you could say at some point a founder must quit their safe day job in order to focus on their startup. They are removing the option of retreat and sharpening their focus by quitting their job.


This is a horrible strategy.

Full-tilting might be brave, but better players are always willing to fold.


I think maybe some of you are trying to make the analogy fit exactly and missing the general point...

There is a lesson in this especially for startups. I took "burning your boat" as a way to take that first leap and not look back. Someone else mentioned quitting your job. It's purposely creating circumstances that force you to look ahead and prepare for the future.


One thing that's true about our brains is that even if we fail having not fully committed we will change our internal narrative to always say something like this:

"That didn't work out but there's really nothing I could have done differently. This outcome turned out great because of X, Y, and Z anyway so who cares?"


Here's a better strategy: burn the other guy's boats. Limit their options, put them in a position where their backs are to the water, make them take on enemies or burdens at no cost to you. Burning your own boats is a poor substitute for lack of discipline.


This reminds me of the old George S. Patton quote: ""The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his."


If there's one thing I've learned in my career, it's that people who don't keep a plan 'B' (and preferably 'C' and 'D') in mind are the absolute worst to work for. This attitude is nothing more than a lazy refusal to maintain a complex strategy, poorly disguised as heroism.


I have done discounted promotions in the past, but we did revenue sharing and it turned out great. 100k free downloads is painful. I wonder if there is a way to tell amazon to limit the free copies to the first 5k people who download, then go into discount mode.


posted on wrong thread.




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