BUSINESS IS WAR! Or is it?
This topic causes me to feel a lot of dissonance.
On one hand Snowflake and its leader who I admire, Frank Slootman, attest that business is war. It is what drives their success and what has made them a leader in the world of data and SaaS.
But, I am also a huge fan of Basecamp (aka 37signals) and their leadership (Jason Fried and DHH), who have stated that thinking of business as war is insane. They attribute part of their success to spurning this war-like mentality.
With such different perspectives how can both be successful? I’ve asked myself this many times as I have tried to figure out where I stand. Maybe both are right? I still don’t know. But here are some highlights on how each approaches the topic.
Slootman is a “war time CEO” and has been compared to Patton. He is always amped up, focused on driving his team forward. He pulls no punches on his view of business being a war:
“It's no exaggeration to say that business is war. Either you already have a turf, and you have to defend it against all comers, or else you have to invade somebody else's turf and take it. We are playing defense and offense at the same time. Either way, conflict is inevitable. Only the government can print money; the rest of us have to take it from somebody else. I love a win-win deal as much as anyone else, but it's much more common that business is close to a zero-sum game.
Part of your responsibility as a leader is making this crystal clear to your people. In today's polite society, many of them will resist the metaphor of war. Life is plenty ugly already; can't we be more civilized about competing with other firms? You'll have to teach them that the game doesn't really start until the other guys, whose profits you are trying to siege, start fighting back with everything they have. They are not our friendly competitors. At a minimum, noses will get bloodied. At worst, in a few months or years, some firms in our industry will still be in business and others won't.
Not everyone has this visceral sense of contest, especially at companies that shield their people from the real stakes at hand. When leaders fail to explain the industry landscape, employees don't feel the cold winds of competition. Their jobs and paychecks feel secure, but that's an illusion. Good leaders explain that none of us are ever truly safe in our roles for any length of time. If this fact makes people uncomfortable, that's good. You need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable because the only alternative is denialism.”
Can’t say it much clearer than that. He and Snowflake see business as a literal war. Their competition is their enemy and they cannot be taken lightly. It is their leaders’ job to make sure that every employee understands this and is focused on winning.
While Snowflake takes business as war literally, Basecamp feels completely different. They see using metaphors about war as extreme and a failure. On their website they say:
“Work isn’t war… Corporate language is filled with metaphors of war. Companies “conquer” the market, they “capture” mindshare, they “target” customers, they employ a sales “force”, they hire “head-hunters”, they “destroy” the competition, they pick their “battles”, and make a “killing”. That’s an awful paradigm and we want nothing to do with it. Work isn’t war. We come in peace.”
Not only are they opposed to actions that seem war-like, they caution against using language that could be misconstrued as sending that message.
One area where both companies have weighed in on the topic, is in relation to talent and hiring.
Like everything else, Snowflake sees talent as a battle. From Slootman’s book Amp It Up:
“In sales meetings I would sometimes pose a clarifying question: "What is our definition of victory? Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, had a simple answer: 'Breaking the enemy's will to fight.' That translates in business terms to persuading some of your competition's best talent to join your company instead. The more high-achieving people who desert their current employers to join us, the more we are winning. It's a double whammy: not only is our enemy losing some of its best talent, but we've taken their strength. A talent drain is the best evidence that a company is in serious trouble and is losing its will to fight.”
From this approach the battle of talent is key to success in business. Companies should be looking to stack their bench with the best talent from other companies. This increases their chances of success, and tears down the ability and morale of their competitors.
As with most things, Basecamp sees things the opposite way as they state in their book It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work:
“Talent isn't worth fighting over. It's not a fixed, scarce resource that either you have or you don't. It rarely even transplants all that well. Someone who's a superstar at one company often turns out to be completely ineffectual at another. Don't go to war over talent. In fact, junk the whole metaphor of talent wars altogether. Stop thinking of talent as something to be plundered and start thinking of it as something to be grown and nurtured, the seeds for which are readily available all over the globe for companies willing to do the work.”
In their minds it’s not about stealing the best talent in the industry. Instead it is about building the best talent from within your own company.
By all measures both companies are successful. They are leaders in both business metrics and leadership. That is what makes it difficult to say who is right, there may not be a right answer. They could both be doing what is best for their companies. But one place they both agree is the need to innovate and avoid incrementalism. Doing things differently is what has made both companies successful and sustainable. This quote from Slootman sums up how to do things, whether you believe business is war or not:
“Why did eBay not become Amazon? Why did IBM not become Microsoft? Why didn't taxi companies invent Uber? Why didn't Hilton or Marriott invent Airbnb? Why didn't Oracle invent Snowflake? Why didn't BMC invent ServiceNow? Why didn't tape automation companies invent Data Domain? Why didn't Ford invent Tesla? The answer in all those examples, and many more, is incrementalism. Teach your people to drive the business to the limits of its potential. So what if you don't get there? At least you went for it! Don't settle for respectable mediocrity; seek to exploit every ounce of potential you are entrusted with. If you want to win big, imagine a radically different future that is not tethered to the past. This is why innovation always seems to come from the least expected places. They don't have a past to care about. They have nothing to lose, no ships to burn behind them. Tying These Battles Together: Using Audacious Goals to Outpace Your Competition.”