Why burning the boats is terrible advice

Burning the boats at the shore

You’ve heard the story about burning the boats right? Legend has it that the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes told his 600 men to ‘Burn the boats’ when they arrived in Mexico in 1519. He wanted to ensure his men had no option but to succeed in plundering the riches of the Aztec empire.

Here’s the thing – Hernan was kind of like Google or Apple with an incredible amount of resources at his disposal. And us? Well, we are not Hernan. We are probably living a comfortable existence in a developed country. We would probably not die for startup success. We, in the modern world should probably be smart enough to ignore this advice.

Personally, I’ve had a lot of startups, more than ten. I’ve also had a lot of projects. The large majority have failed in financially. I’ve had two startups in which I succeeded in selling the business. I never burned the boats once. I always had some boats hidden away under the bushes by the shore for a quick and painless escape. Once I even joined another army (went back into a corporate role). I always had some form of investment to fall back on, safety cash, shares and housing. I even continued to make passive investments while I was bootstrapping my startups. And it is this reason alone I could keep on playing the game. I could keep going back into another startup and try again. I’ve got friends and colleagues who went all in, and now have very little to fall back on. Sure, we all approach things in different ways, but for me startups are an infinite game that I want to keep playing, therefore, I always keep a few boats by the shore.

See the amazing reviews of my book – The Great Fragmentation.

This was just so brilliant I had to re-post it here in its entirety. The 12 most powerful words in business from Ragans PR daily.

Office conference rooms, cubicles, corner offices, and common areas are crammed with business jargon that dulls imaginations and saps creativity.

Many powerful words for business have nary a thing to do, directly, with industry.

1. Why

Polite push back can temper groupthink. Ask why “things have always been done that way.” Or ask why it didn’t work the last time you tried it.

2. Show

People like proof. They want to see things with their own eyes. It’s human nature. In trying to reach and win customers, clients, colleagues, or management, show your ideas with examples. Draw an analogy, give an anecdote, paint a picture. Help them see what you see. Show them, and they’ll be more likely to get it and get on board.

3. Goof

Trying something that didn’t work, as long as it wasn’t impulsively foolish, dangerous, or illegal, can be regarded as the trial run or first draft.

4. Reflect

Breathe, pause and collect yourself before you send an email while angry, take criticism too personally, or speak when emotion is clouding your judgment. The repair work required after you lash out is wasteful, unproductive, and inefficient.

5. Do

Sure, market testing and focus groups have their place. But business success takes action and plenty of doing.

6. Listen

Hearing is a function. Listening is a skill. It takes practice. But it yields immeasurable dividends. Extra points if you listen, consider alternative options and critical feedback, and adjust course because of it.

7. Learn

The staggering pace of growth in social media shows how essential it is to learn all through life. Learning can mean formal training, of course. But learning also happens by staying nimble enough to act when opportunities appear.

8. Open

Being open-minded—open to change, open to being wrong, and open to new possibilities—can lead to new products, new clients, new markets, and entirely new ways of doing business.

9. Respect

Civility eases differences among humans. When I was an editorial writer, my colleagues and I would gather each morning to discuss the official position the Cleveland Plain Dealer would take on the most controversial topics of the day.

Politics, religion, social issues—you name it. It worked well largely because the group was civil and respectful. And our boss was an awesome leader who made sure the discussions stayed that way.

10. Lead

Leading is much more powerful than managing. Think about it: You manage problems. You manage bills. Or you manage just to cope. Leading, on the other hand, is nuanced, customized, and inspired.

11. Fail

Fear of failing keeps people from doing all sorts of things: Piping up at a meeting with an idea, starting a business, or taking other risks. Failing is really an inevitable part of taking risks. And taking risks is an inevitable part of a strong business.

12. Regroup

After failing, it’s important to learn what when wrong and how to do it better next time. This is the true secret of missteps. Through the lessons learned in the aftermath, greatness can emerge.


Fail with pride

I teach Marketing At Melbourne University on a part time basis. One of the things I try to do is stretch my students thinking beyond the traditional marketing arenas. It seems every week we are going through another consumer goods example, or the car industry and lately social media. This week I tried something different and I had a massive fail.

The task was for students to pick a market dominated by 2 brands, and to discuss the points of partity and difference, and how the brand communications and positioning vary. After the students gave me the expected brands:

Herald Sun vs the Age

Facebook vs Myspace

Coke vs Pepsi

Nike vs Addidas

I thought I”d mix it up and asked the group to discuss Capitalism vs Communism.

In the first instance I had to convince the students they were actually brands, and it didn’t improve much from there. The idea fell on deaf ears. It was so far outside of their expectations on what marketing is (consumer goods, shiny products and TV advertising) that they lost interest. I ended up spending the remaining 45 minutes of the tutorial explaining why they are both brands which are managed exactly the same way corporations manage them. It was meant to be a discussion. I failed.

After the initial disappointment and embarrassment wore off, I was pretty happy with it. I’m glad I tried to stretch the students. I’m glad I tried something different, and maybe next week, their minds will be more open.

Startup blog says: Fail with pride.