What a Startup Can Learn from the Conquistadores

You may be familiar with the quote “burn the ships”.  It’s very much used in modern business (sometimes abused) especially in connection to company culture, startups and life hacking. I have always been fascinated by the story behind this quote and I have made a list of very practical tips for startups, all inspired by that story.

Indeed Hernando Cortés (that’s the name of the man behind the quote) was in a position very similar to the founder of a modern startup. He ended up destroying a whole civilization (a shame for anyone passionate about travel and culture like me),  but that aside, Mr Cortés could have been the CEO of a modern startup.

In 1519 Hernando Cortés, a Spanish soldier, crossed the ocean and landed in an unknown country (if you are working in a startup, you know the feeling). He wanted to become rich and famous (any bells ringing?), and he was ready to reach his goal or die trying (very much alike the typical founder!).

Only a couple of problems …

1) You will always underestimate the resources you need

Hernando had completely underestimated the resources needed for the project (sounds familiar?) He landed  in the modern Mexico with a team of 500 men, 13 cavalrymen and a few cannons. Only to find out that the local competition – the Aztec Empire – had an army of between 300,000 and 400,000 men.

2) Your competitor  has been there a longer time and he’s stronger than you

Not only did Hernando have too few resources, but the Aztec Empire had been in  the country for a very long time. They had more soldiers (more than 700:1) and better organization.

Luckily Hernando had a loyal team and good friends that he  could count on. Right? Well, actually wrong.

3) You will probably overestimate the support of your team, friends and family

Just a few days before the “launch” of the expedition, the main sponsor – Diego Velázquez – changed his mind. Hernando ignored the issue and went ahead anyway.

Many startups succeed with a good team, the support of good friends, and the love of an understanding family (not to mention their money. One example;  Mark Zuckerberg’s dad paid for the hosting of Facebook at one point). But many startups fail for the same reason. Your CTO may accept a job offer in a big company just before or after the launch, your friends don’t understand why you are always working, your family … well if you are in a startup your family rarely understand what you are doing anyway.

The solution: burning the ship

Hernando Cortés had too little resources, no more sponsor, and he was planning to conquer a land occupied by the major superpower of the Americas at the time. Even worse. His crew was reaching the same conclusion and they were seriously thinking about jumping back on the ships and sailing away to the nearest Spanish colony.

So he ordered the burning of the ships.

(Actually he didn’t burn the ships, but sunk them. I guess that the quote “burning the ship” is more dramatic and motivating than “scuttle the ship” – that’s why we use it today. But that’s not the point).

The rest is history. Without an escape route Hernando’s soldiers HAD to fight or die. Hernando himself HAD to lead or die. A small team of men ended up conquering the biggest empire in that part of the planet. The story is not as heroic as its sounds and they did take many regrettable actions. Hernando Cortés is considered a criminal by some. But that’s not the point either.

Burning the ship. Removing any escape route before starting a venture. That’s the point of our story.

Burning the ship in the 21st century

I love a good story for itself. But I love it better when I can be inspired by it. So I have listed 3 examples of  “burning the ship” and “conquering an empire” in the 21st century.

1) Before you launch a startup: pick a deadline to quit either your job or your project

I would not suggest quitting a job to everyone, especially not at the beginning. Working on your startup while you have a salary is a good way to test your project.

Not to mention that the average age of a founder in Europe (where I live most of the year) is older than the age of the typical US one. Half of the founders of “my startups” are married with kids (with “my startups” I mean the companies where I am an investor or an adviser, often both). When you have a family you can’t simply quit your job.

But you can’t wait for that “perfect moment” either. Been there, done that. When I finally quit a prestigious job in an even more prestigious multinational corporation, for my friends and family I wasn’t a cool entrepreneur, I was simply “jobless”. Worse, I started feeling their anxiety and became worried myself. I started thinking about going back to the corporate world, but I couldn’t. I had burned my ships.

How to quit your job properly

How did I burn my ships? In my case the trick was using my pride against myself. I spent the few days after I gave my resignation  meeting all my friends and colleagues and explained to them my goal outside the company. Going back to these people a few months later and asking for my job back would have been simply inacceptable for my pride. I was forced to persevere, and I eventually won (not before getting it wrong at least twice, before picking the right venture).

How to decide the right moment to quit your job?

There is no answer, but there is a solution. Because there isn’t a general rule, you have a high chance  of getting trapped in  limbo, where you work in the company all  day, and in your startup  at night and at the weekend. Not good for your social life. Even worse for your family, if you have one.

So the only solution is to decide a deadline in advance. Pick 3 months, or 6 months, or 12 months (you decide, although more than 6 months is usually too much). At the end check the results, and I mean real results (usually that means paying clients and/or investors), not how many twitter followers you have, nor lines of code, nor winning startup competitions.

  • Money => good results => quit your job
  • No money => bad results => quit your venture (or seriously rethink it)

Taking a decision is more difficult than that, but not having a deadline is worse. Much worse.

2) After you launch a startup: register for a pitch

Many founders, especially programmers, could add features and improve their product forever. I know, I have been a programmer before becoming a lawyer, and a lawyer before moving into business. However, if you launch a startup you are not a “programmer” anymore. You are an entrepreneur. And entrepreneurs don’t make money developing a perfect product. They make money … making money (if you don’t understand that, you will).

When the startups I work with are short of sales skills, I suggest to them to register for a public pitch.

You don’t need a major event such as the demo day of Y Combinator. You just need a public pitch. Minor events are just as good and they could be even better at the beginning.

If you have a deadline you HAVE to draft a keynote (which I can amend if we work together). You HAVE to speak in public. You will fail (often), improve (all the time), and eventually succeed (sometimes).

You can also start enjoying it. The founder of one of the startups in my portfolio refused to pitch to journalists for months, waiting  to develop a perfect product. Today he still says that the product is not perfect, but he pitches to journalists and bloggers on a regular basis – and he convinces a couple of them EACH WEEK to write about his startup. When you become good at something it’s easier to like it (besides … yes I am talking about you! You know that I have a great respect for you, even when you are so stubborn that I almost consider hitting your head with a hammer … until I think that it would probably break the hammer!)

3) Deadlines are the modern way to burn a ship

Just a few examples that worked for my startups:

  1. If you want to launch the company blog pick a deadline to write a post for your company blog. Don’t pick a generic “2 times a week” – you will end up in front of a screen on a Sunday evening completely exhausted. Pick something like “Monday first thing in the morning” instead. At 11:00 publish whatever you have, no matter how bad.
  2. If you are bad at sales send an email to a prospect to propose a conference call at a specific time. If he accepts you HAVE to try to sell.
  3. Register for an event where you have to speak. Even for 1 minute as a guest startup after the official pitching. If you use Meetup.com don’t just register for an event for startups. Write on the wall who you are and promise that you will be there.  Avoiding shame is one the best sources of courage.
  4. I am sure you can find even better examples. Write your suggestions in the comments and I will add a point here with your name and your startup. Sharing is good.

In the meantime, burn your ships and choose your goal. I have never been much into conquering empires – I prefer to build something new – but if you want to become the next emperor, drop me an email or a tweet. I salute you!

Image source: Entoni44 at Flickr.com

15 thoughts on “What a Startup Can Learn from the Conquistadores”

  1. Thank you for your article. Awesome. Why don’t you publish to Medium? I read it every day and it’s really cool. Do you have Medium in London?

    1. Thanks Natalie. Yes we can access Medium in London. Sounds a good idea by the way, now I just need to find the time 🙂

  2. Good sh*t man. I’m one of the coder from the Thursday speech, you were tough with us non sales people but I can see why. Pleaze come again

  3. Man your speech thursday let me think. You are right I should put myself on a corner like the Conquistadores

    1. You are right. Cortés died poor because he went back to Spain, but he was never accepted by the Spanish nobles. No matter his achievements, he was not born “noble”.

      In UK, Sir Francis Drake did quite less than Cortés, but he was awarded with gold and fame. His achievements were important.

      In a couple of generations, Spain lost its empire, and the UK become the major super power of its time. I always wonder if the two events are connected …

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