Doing business has a lot of parallelisms with going to war.
Just imagine the business landscape as a battlefield: your competitors are your enemies, and the buying public is the spoils of war reserved for the victorious.
Strength alone doesn’t guarantee victory on the battlefield. The victorious also employed strategies and tactics that allowed them to win—sometimes without firing a single bullet.
And their moves can be just as applicable to your business.
The 5th century BC manuscript of Sun Tzu, The Art of War, is a treasure trove of military strategies and tactics that can help you do business better.
We unearthed 8 lessons in The Art of War that are relevant for businesses.
Lesson #1 : The greatest victory is that which requires no battle
Some people think that growing a business is about setting up a store, hard-selling their products to everyone, and doing that more aggressively than your competitors do.
That’s a wrong investment of your resources.
As Sun Tzu said,
The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.
Translating that to business context: don’t focus on winning your competitors.
Focus on solving your target audience’s problems.
That’ll lead you to victory without a battle.
Lesson #2: Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster
Take note of your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, then use these against them.
Copy their strong points and adopt them as your best practices.
Then exploit their weak points.
Is your competitor selling a product above market price? Undercut them.
Is your competitor’s product of poor quality? Find a better supplier or produce something better.
Know how your competitor does his/her business so that you can adjust your strategy and tactics accordingly.
Lesson #3: Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat
A strategy is the overarching action plan; tactics are the specific actions you undertake to accomplish your strategy.
One should not exist without the other.
Let’s apply this to business.
If you’re an e-commerce seller who wants to target face mask resellers, your strategy could be selling face masks to dependable resellers with a sizeable market base.
The tactics could be finding these dependable resellers, convincing them to buy the face masks from you, and ensuring that they return to you for supplies.
If you were to remove either the strategy or the tactics, it would lead to nowhere. Your strategy will remain a thought, and your tactics will be unguided.
So when planning, map out your strategy and break it down to actionable tactics.
Lesson #4: Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory
TLDR: There is no one size fits all.
In business—just like in war—it’s important to be agile.
If one tactic doesn’t work for one customer, switch to another tactic for this same customer.
But don’t throw that first tactic out of the proverbial window. It could work for another customer.
Whether your tactics are successful or otherwise, always adapt to the changing environment.
There’s an infinite variety of circumstances that can affect your business. While they may be after the same product, your customers’ needs vary. One might need it at a lower price point, another might need more after-sales service.
Always keep the strategy in mind, even when your tactics vary.
Lesson #5: All warfare is based on deception
… Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.Sun Tzu
So deceive your competitors.
No, I don’t mean in an immoral way. I mean in a competitive way.
If you’re doing steep discounts, let your competitors think that you’re waging a price war.
Don’t let them know that you’re using it to gather customers’ data so that you can eliminate this price-sensitive group from your future target audience.
And while you’re at that, your competitors might just start doing steeper discounts to “counter” you—congratulations, you’ve caused them to bleed more at a reason unbeknownst to them.
All because they can’t read what you’re doing.
Lesson #6: Engage people with what they expect
… it is what they are able to discern and confirm their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment—that which they cannot anticipate.Sun Tzu
Imitate how others are doing their business, then execute a business plan that’ll catch them off-guard.
One way you can do this is to observe market trends.
For example, if you observe that the supply of a particular product is going down and the demand is going up, go stock up on those items, then sell them when the demand is at an all-time high.
Lesson #7: One cannot afford to neglect opportunity
Not only do opportunities only knock once, but they also don’t wait.
Sun Tzu said
What is of the greatest importance in war is extraordinary speed: One cannot afford to neglect opportunity. Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
Speed is crucial when executing your strategy and tactics. As soon as the opportunity shows up, grab it—quick. Seize it before anyone else does.
That could give you the coveted first-mover advantage.
Lesson #8: You have to believe in yourself
More than knowing your enemy and yourself, Sun Tzu emphasizes the need to believe in yourself.
Market fluctuations and uncertainties may cause business owners to doubt themselves.
But having second thoughts in the middle of a battle could cost you the war.
So believe in yourself and your abilities, and most importantly, believe that you can succeed.
Qualities required for winning a war is similar to what’s required for winning in business—stealth, speed, intelligence, and having faith in your abilities. These are the things that built today’s empires and conglomerates.
They can build yours tomorrow, too.