David McCullough’s 1776 is, to my mind, the ultimate
story of entrepreneurship. Starting a
company is challenging enough - now imagine starting a country! Although many orders more complex, America’s
founding has much to teach entrepreneurs of all varieties. And given this heritage, it should also come
as no surprise that the United States remains the best place in the world to
start something new.
One of the most valuable things 1776 imparts is an appreciation for the incredibly hard fight endured by the Continental army. If your most recent lesson on the American Revolution came from a high school textbook, you might dimly recall a few triumphant battles and Valley Forge. 1776 paints a vivid picture of the sheer misery and constant trials of the war – trials few could have anticipated. The Continental Army’s perseverance is even more impressive when you realize that the Treaty of Paris wasn’t signed until 1783. For the modern reader, it’s a nuanced lesson: on one hand, you need to be realistic about the challenge ahead, but at the same time, you have no way of really knowing.
The parallels between startups and the Continental army are fascinating. Some quick observations:
- Chaos: Compared to the British army, the Continental army seemed completely chaotic. There were no well-defined roles and no visible hierarchy among these ragtag, shoeless countrymen who had taken up arms. Of course, some of this chaos was real and some was perceived. The relevant point when starting anything is not how to eliminate chaos, but rather which elements of chaos should be tackled in what order. Do you address real organizational challenges, or just shuffle everyone’s title? This distinction escaped the British, who underestimated the strength and ability of the “rebels” simply because they looked like a mess.
- Meritocracy. Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox are two of the better examples. Greene, a Rhode Island Quaker who had never been in battle before, became Washington's most trusted general due to his exceptional competence and dedication. Knox was an obese 25-year-old who rose to the rank of Colonel. He thought up the mission to secure artillery from Ticonderoga, without which the Continental army would have had no such capability.
- Talent: Despite Washington’s minor experience in the French and Indian Wars, his principal strength was not military strategy (in fact, his advisors staved off disaster more than once by convincing him not to do something). His real superpower was his ability to quickly determine who was talented at what.
- Food: Food was critical to the Continental army. Certainly there were times where they were on the move and hardly ate for days on end. While food was always scarce, the fact that the Army was actually able to feed people with some consistency was critical. The modern startup is obviously not directly comparable, but we’ve seen time and again how providing food pays for itself many times over in terms of focus, productivity and commitment.
But more than simple observations and parallels, there are some real takeaways and strategies for anyone who aspires to start something extraordinary:
I was shocked by how many times during the course of battle the British would halt their movement to rest or make porridge or something completely non-essential. There were countless occasions where the side with the advantage could have ended the war, had they only pressed on. Their reasons should sound a cautionary note even now - stop because it is getting dark? Stop because that was the plan (despite the ground truth)? Worst of all: stop because we can finish the job more comfortably tomorrow.
After routing the Americans and forcing them across a bridge, British General Cornwallis decided to rest. The Americans retreated brilliantly and swiftly into the night. This was not the Continental Army's first such retreat, so it’s hard to imagine how Cornwallis did not realize the significant risk they posed. Why didn't he send out patrols? Most likely, he thought he would win tomorrow regardless, and preferred not to win under uncomfortable circumstances. After the fact, he said that he would have kept going, whatever the risks, no matter the orders, if he had only known he would have caught Washington. The lesson: Be ruthless as a default setting, not just because victory is seemingly at hand.
Don't Get Overconfident.
Nearly every major mistake by either side in the 1776 campaign was a result of overconfidence. Minor victories would lead commanders to discard their hard-won knowledge, resulting in terrible decisions. The tendency to let encouraging signs override our better judgment is actually a fundamental human cognitive bias. If you’re interested in learning how to recognize and defeat all manner of non-rational thinking, make it a point to read Overcoming Bias.
Don't Waste Time Politicking.
General Charles Lee felt slighted that the less experienced George Washington was given command of the Continental army, and constantly sought to undermine him. When Washington ordered Lee to bring his forces to New Jersey, Lee dawdled, and was captured by the British while seeking some female companionship in a tavern. Lee was marched to New York in his nightgown, and soon defected. Much more devastating, however, was a series of letters to Lee from Washington's close advisor and friend Joseph Reed, detailing Reed’s disappointment with Washington. Why couldn’t Reed have an honest, face to face conversation with his brother in arms to sort through the issues? In any vital endeavor, there is too much at stake to have closed communications or privately nurse resentments.
It ain't over 'til it's over.
Time after time, each side thought a specific battle was going to be decisive. In retrospect, it is amazing how incredibly wrong they were, and how often. So how do you respond? There is a fine line between being jaded and being realistic. Starting something invariably requires commitment in the face of uncertainty. For this reason, I’d argue that it’s better to be optimistic (even if slightly naïve) than completely cynical, but again, the key is to be aware of our biases.