My father tried to teach me go when I was a kid and I always hated that because I found the game boring. What an irony. Now, I find the game interesting, I’m way too old to become a good player. Though, it doesn’t prevent me from watching it. And understanding it.
Go is a lot like starting a company. The idea of go is to get as much territory as possible just like your company tries to get as much market share as possible. To do so, not only you have to get to the untaken territories first, you also have to defend them and, often, have to conquer territories from your opponent, your competitor.
Every good go player starts the game with an idea of what the game would be. For example, Lee Sedol, in his match 3 against AlphaGo, knew that he wants to come to the mid-game with territorial advantage and end the game by closing the frontiers he has established earlier. For this reason, he has to be quite aggressive in the beginning.
Still, the player can’t play more than one stone at a time. So he goes in the corner because it is easier to secure a smaller zone.
When we start a project, as a founder or entrepreneur, this is also what we do. We have a grand vision about the future of the market. We have an idea of how we want to develop everything and eventually get a huge market share. Still, when we start, without a lot of resource, we need to focus on a niche and grow from it later.
Just like go, it’s important to understand that we can only do one thing at a time. And what amazes me even today is the main difference between good players and great players is how fast the second one would move. Using the same rules and also placing stone after stone.
The only way this can be done is through experience. With experience, we see patterns, we see how to place stones in a way that they “look” distant but are actually connected, which makes the pace faster.
As entrepreneurs, we also see that very often.
It is said that patience is a virtue. Probably. Though patience doesn’t mean to be slow. Patience means to choose wisely between different options. In case of go, to simplify everything, there are 2 options: attack/conquer new territory OR defend/build existing territory.
In entrepreneurship, especially in the beginning, founders should also only focus on 2 things only: sell/acquire new customers OR build/retain existing customers with better products.
The decision is critical all the time because we can only place one stone at a time, every stone counts. This is why the best moves are the ones that achieve many goals. For instance, professional go players would make a move to attack an opponent, while protecting its own territory and in the same time be threatening another group of weak stones.
Founders should do the same. For example, if there is a way to launch a prototype that can both acquire new customers while making the existing ones happier, then do it. And if you have the opportunity to do cover your R&D, do marketing, pre-sales and close deals with one move, then it’s even better.
Another factor that contributes to move faster is to play the last stone first. For instance, in many situations, professional players are capable of “reading the game”. They can see the different variations and would then pick the one that is more favorable. To make it happen, they’ll then need to find a way to “force” the opponent to play the move they want them to play. If the players are confident in doing so, what they need is to anticipate what they’d need eventually to win and usually, it is by reading more moves ahead, and place their last stone first so the opponent doesn’t see it yet and will be trapped later.
For founders, it is capital to have the same ability to read the market. It is believed that Netflix “knew” that video streaming would become the main thing. So instead of becoming a video rental company, they started their business as a video delivery company. Of course, the first move they made wasn’t clear to us: posting physical DVDs, because we didn’t see that coming yet. But it is actually the last move: they started by delivering videos.
The ability to “read the future” is something that is usually shared by all the greatest entrepreneurs.
Go is about balance. Unlike chess, go can be played, and won, without killing anyone, without even a single battle. Just like in some markets where many brands co-exist, each of them having a certain influence that, in a certain way, help the market to grow.
There is a say that a beautiful game of go can only be played by 2 great players. It can be applied to many games, of course. Go just happened to be one of the best examples of this in application because of its nature: a perfect information game that starts on an empty board where each player will play a single move in turn. There is always a driver and a follower. The follower chooses to adapt or to get an upper hand and to get the driving seat.
Just like on a market, there is a “top of mind” or a “market leader” and followers. Apple, for example, would drive the game by releasing the iPhone and then, many technology companies would follow the trend. Though Apple gets most of the shares, the other companies still make a profit from their untaken territories. Then, one day, a follower would feel threaten because Apple grinds too much or maybe this follower found a key opportunity. This is when a counter-attack happens.
Timing is important. When, in which order, how. In go, some pro players talk about “investment” or the “weight” of a stone. How many stones to play to gain how much in return.
Just like in go, entrepreneurs make the decisions based on all these factors. What’s the opportunity, how much is it worth it, when to execute, with how much investment.
A good go player is never over-aggressive. Good go players are committed and confident. Once the plan is decided, the execution is perfect. In a high level pro game, it is rarely seen any “mistake”. What makes the difference is the strategy that is used.
In a start up, or driving a project in general, execution is also key. The best entrepreneurs are execution beasts: they just don’t make mistakes. And to achieve this, not only it is important to have experience, it is also capital to be extremely decisive.
In go, it is way better to try something early and lose a stone quickly than try something crazy in the late game and potentially lose an entire cluster of stones.
Same applies to projects: quickly test the hard assumptions first without spending too much resource. If it dies, let it die quickly so entrepreneurs can re-focus on something else.
Another key in execution is to be extremely self-aware. Great go players know their own strength. So they invest in their strength. They understand their weaknesses of course too, which helps them to understand the range of their gameplay and helps them to have intuitions of possible outcomes, especially bad case scenarios.
When we start a project, we have also to understand what we do well and what we don’t know how to do. Initially, just like go players, entrepreneurs should bet on their strength. What is the very unique advantage they have they can immediately use? Some people even talk about “unfair advantage”. Whatever it is called: figure out what we do best is the first step of a good winning strategy. Knowing their weakness may save the entrepreneurs from critical situations.
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