tl;dr: Most companies are at war. Find your allies and fight the good fight
In The Hard Thing About Hard Things and elsewhere, Ben Horowitz writes about the difference between peacetime and wartime for companies. Peacetime is when when a company is on top, profitable, and is dominating an industry, like Microsoft in the 1990s or Google in the 2000s. But the reality is that most businesses, especially technology startups, are in a continual state of war. The company is fighting for its life. Fighting for relevance in the marketplace. Fighting against the competition. Fighting for talent. Nothing comes easily, and focus and determination are the main predictors of success.
In this post I’d like to share my two best tips for surviving the war:
- Accept you’re already at war
- Find allies wherever you can
The First Rule of Wartime
The first rule of wartime is to accept you’re at war. The early stages of a business where you’re developing technology, acquiring new users, and refining the idea, can feel like peacetime. But this is a false sense of security. Many of the failures I’ve seen at startups stem from the founders never developing an urgency about their situation as a small company that no one has heard of and therefore no one cares about.
Walking onto the battlefield not knowing you’re at war is the fastest way to lose. Accept that your early stage company is at war, first and foremost with its own irrelevance. Know that it may spend its entire life, regardless of how it grows or how successful it is, fighting this war. The business history books are filled with cautionary tales of large businesses that didn’t know they were at war. Blockbuster, Radio Shack, Kodak, Blackberry, and many others lost their wars after long periods of peacetime.
In my time in the trenches I’ve learned that being at war doesn’t mean you can’t have allies. In fact, they’re one of the main strengths you can develop.
In reality, the war that you’re fighting is not against a well-defined enemy — it’s against not mattering. One of our great advisors Jed Carlson of ReverbNation and AdWerx talks about the importance of ‘becoming important’ to your users and to your industry. Allies—people who believe you matter, you are important, and that you should exist—are one of your best weapons in your war against inconsequence and irrelevance.
I call this strategy of finding allies Life During Wartime (with apologies to David Byrne and others). There are four excellent sources of allies I’d suggest you consider.
Users as Allies
The first place to look for allies is your users and customers. They can explain to others why you should exist as a company, and why you matter. If you can’t get this crucial group to join your side in the fight for mattering, it’s very unlikely that you’ll make any progress at all. If you’re able to turn users into advocates and evangelists you’ve hit the jackpot. You matter to these users and they’ll work to convince others to care about you as well.
Your Ecosystem as Allies
Another amazing source of allies is complementary businesses in your ecosystem. Trinket makes a coding tool for the browser, designed for education. We have natural allies in the coding education space that don’t make a computing tool. For instance, publishers and online course providers can use our tool to make their online materials more engaging for the users. That’s a win for them, and it gets us in front of the most relevant audiences for us. Natural allies.
Developers as Allies
We share a vision of browser-based Python forming the core of code education. Why shouldn’t we work together? In doing so, we become allies. Together, we are fighting for browser-based Python to matter. Our enemy is not each other. It’s the outdated way of teaching code that we’re trying to replace.
Your Competitors as Allies
And finally, one of the most counter-intuitive and unlikely places to find allies is in companies that are seemingly competing with you. Remember when Elon Musk announced that Tesla would be providing its patents to competitors free of charge? He understood that his enemy was not gasoline automakers: it was the potential irrelevance of electric vehicles.
This is most true if you’re in a very quick growing market, like my company is. The coding education space is growing so fast that there's room from many competing companies to try many different products. We have benefited greatly from connecting with all the companies in the space. For instance, I have great relationships with the founders of Vidcode, CodeHS, Kodable, and PythonAnywhere, all of which are more or less competitors. In our fast growing market there’s plenty of room for all of our companies to succeed in parallel. In a slowing and consolidating market, which ours will someday become, we become acquisition targets for each other. Either way, it’s best that we become allies. Our shared enemy: not mattering.
Fight the Good Fight
So to any early stage entrepreneur reading this post, I hope hearing how important allies have been to Trinket's success convince you to look for your own. Your users, your industry landscape, open source projects, and even your competitors know that you're important and can help convince others that you matter. The wonderful thing about the technology industry is that we get to make new things that wouldn’t exist without us. Our shared challenge is to convince others, especially our users, that the things that we make are important and should exist.
So, fellow tech entrepreneurs, here’s my message to you from the trenches: yes, we’re all in wartime most of the time. But we’re fighting the same enemy—irrelevance—so let’s team up and win this war.