Enderpreneurship Part 3

This is my third and final post in my series on Entrepreneurship lessons from Ender's Game. For the previous posts, see Part 1 and Part 2.

Lead a startup the way Ender leads Dragon Army.
A startup is very much like Ender's Dragon Army: newly formed, constantly learning, and searching for patterns that work in a complex, rapidly changing environment. Ender's Game provides many examples of poor leadership in this circumstance, most especially that of Bonzo Madrid. Bonzo uses bullying and command-and-control to lead his Salamander Army. Ender senses the suboptimality in this approach immediately, noting that a good commander doesn't need to make stupid threats. Dink reinforces it when he posits that commanders have just as much authority as you let them have. Ultimately Bonzo's "orders are orders; obey or die" style leads to unnecessary losses when Ender is prohibited from firing. His fiery temper not only gets in the way of rational decision-making, it ultimately gets him killed.

Ender's leadership style is much softer and it would be an oversimplification to claim that it is the "right" or "best" style for every situation. However, it clearly works in he novel and I have seen similar styles be very effective in the startup environment. Ender's leadership journey begins before he is ever given formal authority, as soon as he starts the free time practice sessions. In these, Ender leads by example (As founders must - there is no cushy corner office in a startup!) and by inclusion (Founders must be open to ideas from their employees.).

As Ender gets his own army, he exemplifies the leadership skills of trust and empowerment. He trains his teammates, and especially the toon leaders, to think on their own and gives them the authority to make the best decisions in the heat of the moment in the battle room. This is most evident with Bean, whom he trusts to innovate completely new battle tactics. Startup founders who try to hold onto too much control find themselves as bottlenecks stifling innovation and forward progress. The best startup founders hire people whom they believe to be better than they are, co-create clear visions with them, and let them work the way they best see fit. Additionally, Ender shares his vulnerability with Bean; the best startup leaders know how to share not only their confidence and optimism but also their fears sometimes - it makes them more human.

Perhaps most importantly, Ender realizes as he grows from practice session leader to army commander to admiral of the entire IF fleet that a different leadership style is needed in each scenario. It is also true that the same leadership qualities that help a leader get from nothing to a small startup are usually different than those necessary to get from a small startup to a thriving, expanding business. One of a startup leader's greatest assets is adaptability to these changing circumstances - and awareness to know when and how to adapt.

Empathy is a critical skill for entrepreneurs.
Ender's greatest "weapon" by far is his empathy. His empathy for opponents helps him find ways to beat them - and ultimately resurrect them, in the case of the Formics - while his empathy for peers helps him lead them more skillfully. Entrepreneurship is a constant exercise in understanding people so empathy is incredibly valuable for ascertaining client needs, working well with teammates, inspiring people to join your team in the first place, negotiating with business partners, and staying one step ahead of your competition.

Luck plays a strong role in entrepreneurship.
This final lesson is isn't from the content of the book so much as it is from the book itself. Ender's Game is a phenomenal novel so it is easy to assume that Orson Scott Card is an amazing author. However, 30 years after Ender's Game he still hasn't produced anything of remotely that caliber again. The Shadow series was pretty good but all the rest of the Enderverse offerings range from so-so to downright bad.

This happens in entrepreneurship as well: sometimes people are just in the right place at the right time and they succeed in spite of - rather than because of - themselves. Similarly, sometimes people do everything right and it still doesn't work out for them. Orson Scott Card may not be that great of an author; he may have just kind of "lucked out" with Ender's Game. However, he would never have had the chance to luck out that way if he hadn't picked up his [metaphorical] pen and given it a go. And so it is with entrepreneurship: you can't hit it out of the park without stepping up to the plate and taking a swing. Luck plays a strong role in entrepreneurship but you've got to put yourself in positions to take advantage of it.

These were the entrepreneurship messages that resonated with me from Ender's Game. What do you think? Best of luck to all the budding entrepreneurs out there and remember, the enemy's gate is down!


Enderpreneurship Part 2

This is Part 2 of my series on entrepreneurship lessons from the Ender's Game novel. If you haven't already read it, start with Part 1.

The best entrepreneurs don't play the game; they create a new game by playing by different rules

Throughout the novel, Ender turns disadvantageous situations to his advantage by bending, breaking, or completely reinventing the rules of the game - starting near the very beginning in his fight with Stilson. First Ender changes a many-against-one hopeless battle to a one-on-one fight, neutralizing his enemy's strength in numbers. Then he gains the upper hand with a surprise attack and keeps it by explicitly ignoring "the rules of the playground" with a crotch shot. He does the same thing against Bonzo (shaming him into a one-on-one fight then using soap and hot water to thwart his grappling), in the battle room (freezing legs to use as body shields, giving toon leaders autonomy, launching immediately into the room rather than waiting to size up the situation, letting Bean experiment with, e.g., string), against the Formics, and even in the mind game, as he completely transforms the Giant's Drink minigame - previously unwinnable - into one he can win. I explain this game-changing habit of entrepreneurs in greater detail in slides 34-36 of my Entrepreneurship 101 lecture:

Play to your strengths.
The best entrepreneurs don't simply change the rules of the game haphazardly; they change them so as to match up their strengths with their opponents' weaknesses. Ender's most common disadvantage is size - be it his own physical size when confronting a gang of bullies or be it the size of his fleet/army when hopelessly outnumbered. Startups often face similar scenarios, squaring off against large, well established companies with strong brands and loyal customers. Trying to beat such competitors on their own terms, playing by the very rules that have made them successful, is folly. Ender knows he can't win the open war against a bully like Bernard, for example, so he takes the war to the desks, where he is stronger by far. History is full of examples of disruptive startups (like Square, AirBNB, Uber) that have used their small, innovative, agile approaches to disrupt huge industry incumbents.

Seek out weaknesses in clients too.
Playing your strengths to others' weaknesses shouldn't be limited to competition; it is important for clients as well. Bernard kisses up to some launchees but mistreats and bullies others. Ender finds those who are mistreated, like Shen, and begins to form an alliance. Clients in every industry are mistreated by their vendors and business partners, often believing that there are no alternatives. The best entrepreneurs often start by working with the most abused clients, those most motivated to help a startup create a better offering for them. When a startup establishes a reputation as a hero and savior to even a small group of clients, that can be the foundation of a very strong brand!

There are no parents to save you in entrepreneurship.
Graff spends much of his focus cultivating the sense in Ender that there will be no parents to save him in a dire situation - the sense that sometimes it even feels like "God is a Bugger!" Whether fighting Stilson or Bonzo or the Formics, Ender is on his own. This is true in entrepreneurship as well; there is no greater power waiting in the wings to swoop in and save the entrepreneur if things get too tough. And that's OK; hardships and trials lead not only to better IF commanders but also to better entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs aren't totally alone, though; as I've said before, they derive a great deal of strength from their secure bases.

In Part 3 of this series I propose some lessons in startup leadership from Ender's own leadership journey.

Enderpreneurship: What Andrew Wiggin Can Teach Us About Winning the Game of Entrepreneurship

This weekend's release of the cinematic adaptation of Ender's Game (and rereading the novel before going to see the movie) got me thinking about how many of Ender's experiences can be translated into lessons on entrepreneurship. As I stated in my TEDx talk:

we can take MANY lessons on entrepreneurship from popular myths and I even singled out Ender's Game in particular for one of those lessons:

Rereading the novel, I was inspired by many more such lessons; here are some of the first:

The Entrepreneurship "game" is exhausting, exhilarating, and profoundly impactful.

The battle room game, around which most of the novel is centered, is an excellent metaphor for the practice of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial development. There are many aspects to Battle School: classes, combat training, free time, dining, etc. but the games are what the boys live for. Entrepreneurship is itself a game with rewards and payoffs and penalties and skill and chance just like any other game. The best entrepreneurs live for the game and thrive when playing it.

Entrepreneurship must be developed experientially.

As Colonel Graff explains, though, the calculus of what makes someone succeed in the game is very poorly understood: choosing the right launchees is only so good because the tests are only so good; you've got to start putting them through the paces ASAP. And so it is with entrepreneurship, which cannot be taught in classrooms or learned in books; it must be developed experientially.

Strategic agility is crucial to a startup.

As in the battle room game, rapid experimentation, a willingness to fail, and a propensity for learning from failure is key to entrepreneurial success. Through Ender's experimentation in the battle room, he accidentally discovers how to rebound off walls, which turns out to be a crucial tactic. He similarly learns that command-and-execute toon formations are too rigid and inflexible to beat an agile, innovative opponent. So it is with entrepreneurship. As Steve Blank is fond of saying, "Big companies execute known business models," like toons executing formations, "while startups search for unknown business models," like autonomous toons able to learn from their environment (market) and react to it. Ender also finds that he must constantly adapt and innovate his strategy to keep winning games - both in the battle room and against the Formics. So, too, with startups: yesterday's winning strategy is today's losing strategy.

Measure and optimize the right metrics.

Initially Ender's individual battle room metrics are outstanding due to his limited participation. Once he becomes truly engaged in battles, those metrics go down. That's OK because they are vanity metrics - like website hits, facebook likes, or any other metric that conveys a sense of success but doesn't actually move the needle for your startup. The metric that counts for Ender - wins vs losses - keeps going up, up, up!

This is Part 1 of a three-part series. See Part 2 for more thoughts on Enderpreneurship.