Imagine this, the year is 117 AD and Emperor Trajan is still alive and ambitious in his conquest in expanding the Roman Empire. Trajan’s legionnaires are known as the most advanced among of all the other war troops as they have conquered a huge part of Western Europe and seized fortunes from regions that they currently occupy. They are big in numbers, strong and steady. It’s no surprise that the Roman Empire is regarded as one of the most dominant powers and is feared by all.
But somewhere along the Danube, the Mongol team of enthused cavalry is plunging into Roman territory. The fleet is led by Genghis Khan’s primary military strategist, Subutai. He has directed more than 20 campaigns, conquered 32 nations, won 65 pitched battles and has conquered more territory than any other commander ever has. In a planned attack, they are heading to a territory where Roman legions are heavily concentrated. Border cities and towns are pillage, and many Romans are slaughtered…
The Romans have 13 legions (78,000 troops) while the Mongol cavalry is only a quarter of their size, with the total strength of only 22,000 troops, but small numbers were never a problem for the nomads.
The Romans capitulate, and the Mongols gain victory.
The Modern-Day Battlefield
What can we learn from the narrative above? Similarly, modern-day business can be as warring and intense as the battlefield situation mentioned above. Markets and trends are set by the most dominant corporations – the bigger they are, the wider their territory. But that does not mean that within any industry, say tech or finance, that they can’t be ruptured by smaller forces; ambitious, innovative entities that are much faster and flexible in nature which we all know as startups. Wonder how Subutai and his army gained victory over their huge dominant rival? Well, have a read of how the various key-factors that led to this triumph are surprisingly similar to strategies that startups use.
First, their real strength was not in their numbers but in their agility. The troop was made up of skilled horsed archers with an utmost superior mobility. Relatively in nature, startups and the Mongolian cavalry share the same characteristics- they are small, agile, armed with a can-do-attitude, inventive, and very dynamic.
The world has witnessed how tech-startups like Whatsapp, WeChat and Facebook Messenger have changed the way people communicate through innovative, over-the-top messaging apps that has obsoleted the traditional paid ‘SMS’ text messages that were dictated by Telco giants like AT&T, Vodafone and AOL decades ago.
The Mongolian cavalry is known for their ‘shock-tactics’ such as fake withdrawals and surprise attacks. Like the Mongols’ cavalry, due to their agility, startups are able to grow rapidly through growth hacking, constant pitches for funding, and the ability to pivot when needed.
One of the best examples of a successful startup pivot is PayPal, which has gone through many changes since its formation in 1999. From the initial concept of “beam” payments on PDA’s, they merged with a financial services company called X.com and became the preferred online payment system for eBay sellers.
Effectively, the Mongolian cavalry is equipped with a rapid communication technique that uses swift riders and a system of relay stations to deliver messages to and from the battlefront. It is akin to startups as they are small in numbers and less bureaucratic. Hence, communication is much more practical from top-down and vice versa.
For this reason,David Karp, Tumblr’s founder prefers the “let’s just call each other when we need something or want to hang out” approach rather than resorting to traditional bureaucratic communication methods.
Finally, the Mongolian cavalry are opportunistic in nature as they feverously ambush their enemy whenever the opportunity arises. They hit-and-run in wave attacks, which is similar to startup’s method of ‘disruptive innovation’. Coined by Clayton M. Christensen, the term allows startups to ignore certain rules of the game, and aim to conquer as much market share as they can once their venture has started.
Here is an example of how Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar disrupted and innovated the way people around the globe travelled by hailing private cars while allowing drivers to earn money using the ‘sharing revolution’ concept that brought about big changes in the Taxi industry.
Solidity is not Ever Assuring
Like the Roman Empire, corporations are huge companies with solid foundations that usually operate in two or more countries globally. Due to this, they need a huge team of highly qualified people to run the business; with multiple levels of management that makes the system very bureaucratic.
Indeed, communication is hardly effective, and the decision-making process is intricate. Companies like Toyota, Apple Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, and HSBC are among the most successful corporations known today. Because they are huge, they need a lot of resources to sustain themselves, leaving little room for mistakes, or chances to pivot their businesses. It is hard to pivot when their products/services are mass-produced, trademarked, patented and copyrighted for international distribution and are sold around the globe.
The difficulty in pivoting makes corporations susceptible towards collapses. For instance, Swissair, which were so financially stable that it was known as the “Flying Bank” collapsed due to their mismanagement and their inability to avoid being hit financially.
Hybrid Armed Forces
Conclusively, from the comparisons made, how can corporations and startups learn from each other? Some corporations like MasterCard and General Electric established ShopThis! and FastWorks that incorporate the ‘lean startup’ approach by forming a cross-functional team to execute non-traditional business practices known as ‘intrapreneurship’. The Batavian Cohorts of the Roman Legion may meet the standards for this ‘unit’ where they attack enemies by undergoing an amphibious assault (an impressive feat during that time) and underwent sieges that normal legions typically could not.
Startups on the other hand, can learn from corporations in terms of management in ensuring the smoothness of their venture. For instance, it is valuable for startups to learn how big corporations establish effective disciplinary techniques in ensuring employees are on track. Aside from that, most successful multinational corporations have the best human resource management practices that startups can adopt so that they can have an effective team to scale and grow at a much faster pace. With all the information shared, both startups and corporations can benefit greatly through integration and adaptation.