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