10 Sun Tzu Strategies for Startups

Gary C. Bizzo  |

Image: Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Source: Dreamscape Media

Yes, we are in a war, an invisible one, with the battlefield in hospitals and the warriors embodied by medical personnel.

In my world of startups and entrepreneurs, there's another war that exists today with battles hard to see and victims everywhere.

For many years business has been compared to two armies going to war. Sun Tzu, the famous fifth and sixth century BC Chinese general, is traditionally credited with The Art of War, a treatise on military strategy that has influenced global thinking. His observations and strategies have been taught in most business schools the world over.

After the virus is defeated or at least stymied, and people resume their business lives, there will be those who, for good or bad, will take the opportunity to grab territory, capture great employees from competition and jockey for a better position in the market.

Sun Tzu's strategies are perfectly good for business now, as they were for his successes in war.

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  1. The Use of Spies
    “Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE.
    Knowledge of the enemy's dispositions can only be obtained from other men”

    I personally love this one. My clients and I have used this technique for many years. Let's say you are selling liquor in a retail setting and are just starting out or trying to grow your business. Doesn't it make sense to visit your competitor's store to see what products are selling, how their sales people treat customers and how the layout of the store helps with sales? I've actually chatted with sales people to gain a bit more of their perspective all the while pretending to be a customer.

    While some may consider this sneaky it's actually called Business Intelligence.
  2. Focus on Your Competitors Weaknesses
    "An army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.”

    It's not personal it's business! Given the chance your competitor will pounce on you. The restaurant owner who quickly adapted to COVID-19 by immediately setting up delivery when others were thinking of it wins the business. When opportunity calls you must answer it.
  3. Don't Mess Up the Market
    "Generally in war, the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this … For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

    My buddy entered the industry of children's sports team photos with little experience. He determined that there was a demand for a new product that only he could produce then discounted his product vs the leading product, undermining everyone in the market.

    In six months he had decimated the market in British Columbia — the entire province — by putting several of the competitors into bankruptcy. After a few months he raised his prices and succeeded where others had failed. It could have easily gone the other way and destroyed the market where no one could enjoy a profitable business.
  4. First to Market
    “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”

    When launching a new product to the market that you know your competitors can knock off or compete with, launch quickly, decisively and with all the resources you can muster. Capture the market share before they have a chance to pivot their product to fight yours. Big companies find it hard to pivot or scramble when change hits them unexpectedly.
  5. Strategic Planning
    “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations.” “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

    Every startup needs a plan, a Business Plan, and every investor expects one. They want to see on paper how you will execute each move going forward. They want to see that you have planned for every eventuality and, yes, they expect to win.
  6. Customer Service and More
    “The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

    If you and your main competitor offer the same product and services how do you beat him? Customer Service is always a big source of pain for both customer and business. Is there something you can do better for your customer that the competition isn't doing? Failure on the part of your competitor is your opportunity.
  7. Good Management at the Top
    “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

    It's fairly obvious in war if the general is incompetent, ineffective or not trusted by his men – he loses! CEO's face the same fate and one could say the results would be the same. Many startup leaders have great ideas and personal skills but are not up the task of running a growing dynamic company. You must be aware and ready to relinquish control to someone who can lead.
  8. Leadership
    "When one treats people with benevolence, justice and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them, the army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders.”


    A corollary to the need for good management, I suppose, but some people instill such confidence in their leadership that soldiers or employees will follow them anywhere, work ten hour days and produce exceptional results having maximized their potential. Sadly, the reverse is also true with HR departments scrambling to find dedicated employees to work in a toxic or laissez-faire operation.
  9. Prepare Adequate Defenses
    “It is a doctrine of what that we must not rely on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to meet him: not on the chance of his not attacking, but on the fact that we have made our position invincible”

    Today we often say, the best defence is a good offense. In Gerald A Michaelson's book, “Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers; 50 Strategic Rules” he tells us about Komatsu going after the heavy equipment giant, Caterpillar. After a lengthy price war, Caterpillar succeeded because they had a strong dealer network and customer contacts in place. Caterpillar was ready for the competition and Japanese-owned Komatsu didn't understand the strength of personal relationships.
  10. The Best Employees
    “Victory usually goes to the army who has better trained officers and men.”

    How many times will we hire our buddies when creating a startup. I realize knowing your employee is important, and easy, but one should allocate resources to give your company the best chance to succeed even from the beginning.

    You don't need a pile of money to pay these quality employees. Stock or options make a compelling reason for someone to believe in your dreams. You'd be surprised how non-monetary reasons can make an impact when an employee is considering joining your new enterprise.

Every time I read Sun Tzu, I gain so much from his strategies. There have been countless books translating his stratagems and interpreting how it can benefit 'the modern man.' It certainly is a strong business tool to be read and analyzed to fit your circumstances.

Gary Bizzo is CEO of Syphon Nanotech Inc., Bizzo Management Group Inc. and Bizzo Integrated Marketing Corp. in Vancouver. London-based Richtopia placed Bizzo on the Top 100 Global Influencers in the World for 2018. He is an Adjunct Professor of Integrated Marketing & Communications as well as Consumer Behavior at the New York Institute of Technology, MBA School of Management (Vancouver Campus). Gary can be reached at ceo@garybizzo.com.

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Equities Contributor: Gary Bizzo

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