The Biggest Lesson Napoleon Can Teach Startups — Part II

In The Biggest Lesson Napoleon Can Teach Startups, I talked about how Napoleon used speed and focus to beat his competition and how the same tactics can be applied to startups.

In this post, I’ll dive deeper on how Napoleon gained that speed advantage and again, draw some parallels to startups.

Let’s begin with Napoleon .

Prior to 1805, armies moved around in one big mass. And there were a few solid reasons why that was considered a smart move:

  1. Control & Communication
    There were no radios. No cell phones. Communication was limited to how loud you can shout, how fast you can carry written messages, and the visibility of various signals (e.g. banners). You wanted to be close to your troops to facilitate communication and coordination.
  2. Concentration of Force
    A numerical advantage in a battle was obviously extremely important.
  3. Morale
    Seeing your fellow soldiers all around you is a huge morale boost.

However, the biggest drawbacks are:

  1. A massive army gets clogged up on narrow country roads.
  2. Living off the land is hard because the area to forage is so limited. You need to wait for slow supply caravans.

So here’s what Napoleon did. He created independent, self-sufficient armies calls corps. And each corps had everything they needed to fight — soldiers, cannons, cavalry.

And instead of lumbering down a single road together, the corps could spread out and head in the same general direction using multiple different roads. They were in a much better position to live off the land since they were dispersed across a much wider area (limiting the need for those slow supply caravans). Then, when a battle was about the commence, the corps concentrated into a single location.

Time and time again, Napoleon’s organizational innovation let him fight on his terms. If the enemy chose to amass their forces and defend 1 city, he’d just strike another city before they could mobilize to defend it.

Now, let’s see how this applies to startups.

In the early 2000s, SaaS and monthly subscriptions didn’t really exist. Annual contracts were the norm. Software was installed on a company’s on-premise server. Sales deals would drag on through a complicated procurement process.

Then, Salesforce came on the scene. They made software-as-a-service a reality. So instead of installing software on a company’s server, it was in the cloud. Instead of a huge annual contract that had to go through procurement, the software could be purchased month-to-month and could be put on a credit card. Sales cycles shortened. Close rates went up.

A seemingly minor, logistical change can had profound tactical and strategic implications. Is there an organizational, structural change that can affect your startup?

Startups, product management, marketing