Why compete?

(I’ve been reading the Ender’s Game books recently, so I feel like everything I want to write somehow springs from there.)

I think competition, of the sort that is anything more than hedonic, is bad for startups. And that may just be that I’m not a terribly competitive person and therefore try to justify my own natural inclinations. But I think it is more than that.

“…she had no particular interest in competition because she always started from the assumption that, if it mattered, she would find a way to win.” – Peter’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card

A good founding team believes in its own abilities. Not cocky, but confident (which is a fine line and people can be both). In believing in those abilities, the team doesn’t feel the need to have rivals or to compete against others, because it is confident that if it is neccessary that only one startup team will win in their space, it will be theirs. Knowing this, they may realize the value of being the strong second, of good partnerships over standing alone, of a good race over a Pyrrhic victory.

I know some excellent founders that lead companies that are not the biggest or highest earning in their category. Sometimes, they’ve chosen second place because they prefer that their team have a life: kids, laughter, significant others, enough sleep. At other times, it is because in order to be first, they would have to tear down a company that would ultimately reduce their own profit, by casting doubts on the category as a whole. Thrive would have been a much harder sell had there been no Mint, and the only way to truly stop Mint would to have been to challenge the entire concept of PFM in the first place.

And not competing doesn’t always mean taking second place. Sometimes, you can be less interested in competition and still end up winning the race, purely because you are already naturally setup to run it faster than anyone else. The point of the quote is that if you know what you are capable of, you can make more intelligent decisions about the tradeoffs.

Not enough teams think about themselves. Their products, their market, their profits; all these rise to the top. But critical thinking about what actually makes them work, or not work, as a team? As individual leaders? If I were running an incubator today, I’d spend real time with each founder helping them understand what leadership is about. Not managing investors and outside expectations, but understanding the true nature of their own army.

It is one of the things I loved, and love, most about working with Avi Karnani. He is unafraid to sit down and have an honest conversation about his own leadership style and where he can make adjustments. And it makes him, when he wants to be, one of the strongest leaders I know.

And yes, he’s read the Ender’s books too.